Tuesday 12 March 2024

Math and Politics, A drama in three acts

  Politics and math

I received a nice e-mail from Dan MacKinnon, a Canadian math/computer teacher (who writes a nice recreational math blog)  after my blog about Karl Marx and Mathematics.  
He wrote:
I enjoyed your short post on Karl Marx's mathematics.
I first heard about Marx's mathematical work when I was a student at Dalhousie University in Halifax. While I was there, I heard a story that that back in 1970 a prof there was pushed out by the admin because he was using Marx's stuff as the basis for a course he was teaching on Real Analysis. I wish I knew the whole story - what made it more interesting was that the prof was F.W. Lawvere (pretty famous Category Theorist) and he was pushed out during the October Crisis (a terrorist incident in Montreal, 1970), which was used as a pretext to get rid of a number of radicals and undesirables in a lot of Canadian institutions.   [MY INSERT- I have found online that  “Dalhousie University in 1969 set up a group of 15 Killam-supported researchers with Lawvere at the head; but in 1971 it terminated the group. Lawvere was controversial for his political opinions, for example, his opposition to the 1970 use of the War Measures Act, and for teaching the history of mathematics without permission. (?boy they could lock me up any day?) But in 1995 Dalhousie hosted the celebration of 50 years of category theory with Lawvere and Saunders Mac Lane present.”   Not sure how long it took to be “pushed out”.]
In connection with this this story, I was told that politics and mathematics go together surprisingly often. In the early days of Category Theory, this area of mathematics was perceived as "leftist" - even Saunders Mac Lane's famous book, "Categories for the Working Mathematician" used "working" with a slightly political nuance. I was also told that while category theorists were perceived as progressives, set-theorists were perceived as reactionaries. I have no idea whether or not these supposed political distinctions among mathematicians is true today, or if they were ever true.

I got a  note from Dan McKinnon after I had written this commenting on another reader, Kevin's,  comment that, " I think the early term was "general abstract nonsense" which may still apply in my limited understanding."  Prof. McKinnon's response was, " ..my understanding is that many Category Theorists don't mind the term "abstract nonsense" and have appropriated it somewhat. While at the chalkboard and carrying out some "routine" diagram pasting they'll say "and now by the usual abstract nonsense we get the result..."

Mathematicians getting in trouble because of their political/religious views is not a new idea... as I found in this old cut from the introduction to a geometry textbook.. In this case, one might suggest that bad politics lead to good math.  

And one of my favorite math stories is  from George Gamow's autobiography and is about the Nobel Laureate, Igor Tamm.
 "Here is a story told to me by one of my friends who was at that time

a young professor of physics in Odessa. His name was Igor Tamm (Nobel
Prize laureate in Physics, 1958). Once when he arrived in a neighboring
village, at that period when Odessa was occupied by the Reds, and was
negotiating with a villager as to how many chickens he could get for
half a dozen silver spoons, the village was captured by one of the
Makhno bands, who were roaming the country, harassing the Reds. Seeing
his city clothes (or what was left of them), the capturers [sic]
brought him to the Ataman, a bearded fellow in a tall black fur
hat with machine-gun cartridge ribbons crossed on his broad chest and
a couple of hand grenades hanging on the belt.
'You son-of-a-bitch, you Communist agitator, undermining our Mother
Ukraine! The punishment is death.'
'But no,' answered Tamm, 'I am a professor at the University of Odessa
and have come here only to get some food.'
'Rubbish!' retorted the leader. 'What kind of professor are you ?'
'I teach mathematics.'
'Mathematics?' said the Ataman. 'All right! Then give me an estimate of
the error one makes by cutting off Maclaurin's series at the nth term.
Do this, and you will go free. Fail, and you will be shot!'
Tamm could not believe his ears, since this problem belongs to a rather
special branch of higher mathematics. With a shaking hand, and under
the muzzle of the gun, he managed to work out the solution and handed
it to the Ataman.
'Correct!' said the Ataman. 'Now I see that you really are a professor.
Go home!'
Who was this man? No one will ever know. If he was not killed later, he
may well be lecturing now on higher mathematics in some Ukrainian
I tell this story every other year or so to my physics students when
they cannot be bothered to remember the form of the remainder in Taylor

I imagine that as long as you do math, or teach math in a public environment, we will be subject to political influences.  I’m not sure it is always bad..... but....

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