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.

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.'

and have come here only to get some food.'

'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

university."

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

expansions...."

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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

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 movement...you 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....

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

Siegfried Herrmann

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