Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Power of Biography

courtesy of pixabay.com

 I always enjoy learning which popular math books have inspired other mathematicians along their way. One of the volumes that most frequently comes up, to my surprise, is E.T. Bell's "Men of Mathematics." In fact, it arose again in an obituary for John Nash over the weekend, mentioning it as one of his favorites. (Of course both the Sylvia Nasar bio and the movie about Nash's own life were huge popular hits as well.)

I do like biographies, but Bell's 80-year-old volume never much grabbed me, probably because it runs from Zeno to Cantor, missing all those who would interest me since Cantor's time. Paul Erdös, Ramanujan, Benoit Mandelbroit, H.M.S. Coxeter, John von Neumann, and of course Gödel, are some other 20th century mathematicians with bios or autobios available. Stanislaw Ulam and Norbert Wiener also wrote autobiographical accounts, and there have been some more recent compendiums, like Bell's original book, as well. Anyway, it's interesting how easily moved we are by the lives of others, and I wonder which of our modern day mathematicians will one day have important bios written about them, inspiring future generations of mathematicians.

Surely, there will be a biography of Terence Tao at some distant point in time. Andrew Wiles seems another likely candidate; perhaps Donald Knuth or Bill Thurston.  Of course, Martin Gardner (more strictly a philosopher and writer than a mathematician), did his own autobiography and also has an official biography in the works. I suspect Raymond Smullyan, again more strictly a logician than a mathematician, will eventually have a biography of his incredible life as well. And John Nash's too-sudden death may spur an additional biography or two of him. Who else? There are a lot of possibilities... one for certain, and highly anticipated (due out in just a couple of months), is Siobhan Roberts' bio of John Conway ("Genius At Play"), who is still with us, and no doubt a fantastic character for a book-length profile!

And speaking of biographical stuff, any of you 60s/70s fans out there may enjoy this recent profile of a one-time math teacher by the name of... Art Garfunkel:


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