Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The Logic of Madness: An Observation

When Courant was asked to explain the special factor that gives mathematical talent, he replied that "There is no such thing." To underline his point, he added: "Rather than ask what special qualities mathematicians possess, you should ask - what do they lack that other human beings possess."
Diderot, the famous French encyclopaedist, would have probably replied: "A sense of fair play, that goes with adulthood and maturity. Monsieur." Diderot must have been wary of mathematicians ever since his encounter with Euler at the French Court. There was to be a grand debate between the most powerful intellects of the day - "Did God exist?"
Diderot would argue for his own brand of atheism, while Euler would espouse the Christian cause. Euler opened by stating, with a great sense of certainty, a nonsensical algebraic formula (which he had just made up on the spur of the moment). He then declared solemnly, "Therefore God exists! I rest my case." Diderot was a mathematical ignoramus, and consequently was unable to come up with any reply; he ended up as a laughing stock - a cautionary example for all "great" intellects.
But the most apt illustration of the odd behaviour of mathematicians is Cardan, who was a famous mathematician and astrologer of the 16th Century. Using astrology. Cardan predicted the exact date of his own death. And he was absolutely correct! However, astrologers care to avoid this single proof of the veracity of their predictions. Cardan was such a logical pedant that he considered that his reputation would suffer if he was wrong. On the predicted date - 21st September 1576, he killed himself. Quod erat demonstrandum!

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