Wednesday 27 March 2024

Politics and math, A Drama in Four (or more) Parts

   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 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, " 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 recently had occasion to learn of a fourth incident I wanted to include....

 In 1922 Issai Schur was elected to the Prussian Academy, proposed by Planck, the secretary of the Academy. Planck's address which listed Schur's outstanding achievements had been written by Frobenius, at least five years earlier, as Frobenius died in 1917. 

On 29 March 1938 Bieberbach wrote below Schur's signature on a document of the Prussian Academy:- "I find it surprising that Jews are still members of academic commissions."

Just over a week later, on 7 April 1938, Schur resigned from Commissions of the Academy. However, the pressure on him continued and later that year he resigned completely from the Academy. Schur left Germany for Palestine in 1939, broken in mind and body, having the final humiliation of being forced to find a sponsor to pay the 'Reichs flight tax' to allow him to leave Germany. Without sufficient funds to live in Palestine he was forced to sell his beloved academic books to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He died two years later on his 66th birthday.

Only five years earlier  "On 7 April 1933 the Nazis passed a law which, under clause three, ordered the retirement of civil servants who were not of Aryan descent, with exemptions for participants in World War I and pre-war officials. Schur had held an appointment before World War I which should have qualified him as a civil servant, but the facts were not allowed to get in the way, and he was 'retired'. M M Schiffer wrote :-When Schur's lectures were cancelled there was an outcry among the students and professors, for Schur was respected and very well liked. The next day Erhard Schmidt started his lecture with a protest against this dismissal and even Bieberbach, who later made himself a shameful reputation as a Nazi, came out in Schur's defence. Schur went on quietly with his work on algebra at home."  #SAU

Throughout the Nazi control in Europe, the term "Jewish Physics" was used to describe anything other than classical physics, with special reservation for relativity, as Einstein was off limits.  
"Heisenberg had a Professorship at the University of Leipzig, but he expressed interest in moving to Munich when a position opened up at the University there. However, he was passed over, and instead another person who was a dedicated Nazi but a second rate physicist was appointed. This was not the end of his problems, however. A denunciation appeared in a Nazi newspaper accusing Heisenberg of being a "White Jew". Now basically the derogative term "Jewish Physics" was used for modern physics, especially by some Nazi scientists, like Lenard, who simply could not understand relativity or quantum uncertainty. Had they had their way, German students would have learned only classical physics. Heisenberg was saved from the possible fate of being sent to a concentration camp by the fact that his mother was a personal friend of the mother of the notorious Himmler, the head of the Gestapo (Secret Police). Himmler recognized that Heisenberg could be very useful to the Nazi state, and they made the following agreement: Heisenberg could still talk about relativity in his classes, but not mention Einstein." (Heisenberg and "Jewish Physics" by S. A. Moszkowski).  
During the McCarthy period, when efforts were being made to root out communist sympathizers in the United States, Edward Condon was a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee on the grounds that he was a 'follower' of a 'new revolutionary movement', quantum mechanics; Condon defended himself with a famous commitment to physics and science.
Years later, Carl Sagan reported how Condon described one encounter with a loyalty review board. A board member stated his concern: "Dr. Condon, it says here that you have been at the forefront of a revolutionary movement in physics called...quantum mechanics. It strikes this hearing that if you could be at the forefront of one revolutionary could be at the forefront of another". Condon said he replied: "I believe in Archimedes' Principle, formulated in the third century B.C. I believe in Kepler's laws of planetary motion, discovered in the seventeenth century. I believe in Newton's laws...." and continued with a catalog of scientists from earlier centuries, including the Bernoulli, Fourier, Ampère, Boltzmann, and Maxwell] He once said privately: "I join every organization that seems to have noble goals. I don't ask whether it contains Communists".*Wik

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....

1 comment:

Siegfried Herrmann said...

Das Jahr 2024 ist ein Schaltjahr, daher ist der 27. März der 87. Tag. Frohe Ostern 2024.
Siegfried Herrmann