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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Pursuing Alexander...


A. Grothendieck via Wikipedia
Often, people find the most oddball, neurotic, reclusive mathematicians to be the most fascinating, even heroic, ones (I touch slightly upon math eccentricity in the prior post at MathTango), but Evelyn Lamb points to a woman who actually approached and met (before he died) one of those unorthodox mathematical geniuses, Alexander Grothendieck:

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/roots-of-unity/a-close-encounter-with-grothendieck-and-his-fence/

The protagonist here, Katrina Honigs, writes early on of her 2012 encounter: "...I am driven to demystify -- it is part of what motivates me to be a mathematician -- and when we tell ourselves and others that our heroes are inhuman and on a pedestal that is not just high but unattainable, we are actually pushing ourselves down rather than climbing." And so she actually trespasses and carries baked goods along to meet the object of her fascination.  There's no great drum-roll or clash of cymbals to her story, just the brief, unlikely encounter of two different individuals. She sums it up simply as "a story worth telling: a bit odd, a bit funny, and, at least to me, a bit meaningful."

I wouldn't go so far in such pursuit as Katrina does, but her story did make me wonder what living math-giants I might feel driven to meet if I could simply wave a magic wand and be plopped into their presence. Three names that came to mind quickly were Raymond Smullyan, Ed Witten, and Freeman Dyson, though I'm sure there are others... but what I would possibly say to any of those three, were I to meet them, I barely have a clue! :-(
Who might you most like to chat with over coffee and scones, given a magic wand?


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