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Tag: Roberts

We sit in our ivory towers and think

I’m on vacation, and re-reading two ‘metabiographies’:

Philippe Douroux : Alexandre Grothendieck : Sur les traces du dernier génie des mathématiques


Siobhan Roberts : Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway


Siobhan Roberts’ book is absolutely brilliant! I’m reading it for the n-th time, first on Kindle, then hardcopy, and now I’m just flicking through its pages, whenever I want to put a smile on my face.

So, here’s today’s gem of a Conway quote (on page 150):

Pure mathematicians usually don’t found companies and deal with the world in an aggressive way. We sit in our ivory towers and think.

(Conway complains his words were taken out of context, in an article
featuring Stephen Wolfram.)

If only university administrations worldwide would accept the ‘sitting in an ivory tower and think’-bit as the job description, and evaluation criterium, for their pure mathematicians.

Sadly… they prefer managers to thinkers.

This reminds me of another brilliant text, perhaps not receiving the attention it deserves:

Daniel J. Woodhouse : An open letter to the mathematical community.

Woodhouse offers a reaction to the ‘neoliberal upper management and bloated administration’ of universities:

Within the sphere of pure mathematics — the oldest and most successful of humanity’s intellectual endeavors — I believe our best chance at preserving the integrity and dignity of our tradition is to return to our Pythagorean roots. We should become a cult.


Let us seclude ourselves in mountain caves and daub mysterious equations in blood across rock-faces to ward off outsiders. Let us embrace our most impenetrable mathematical texts as sacred and requiring divinely distributed revelation.


I am convinced that the current system has dulled our understanding of the value we offer through our instruction. Modern mathematical techniques are the foundation of modern science, medicine, and technology, and we should be the literal, rather than metaphorical, high priests of this temple. Only by withholding our insights will we be able to reassert the intrinsic worth of our knowledge.

I hope these few paragraphs have wetted your appetite to read the manifesto in full, and then take action!

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Rarer books: Singmaster’s notes

David Singmaster‘s “Notes on Rubik’s magic cube” are a collectors item, but it is still possible to buy a copy. I own a fifth edition (august 1980).

These notes capture the Rubik craze of those years really well.

Here’s a Conway story, from Siobhan Roberts’ excellent biography Genius at Play.

The ICM in Helsinki in 1978 was Conway’s last shot to get the Fields medal, but this was the last thing on his mind. He just wanted a Rubik cube (then, iron-curtain times, only sold in Hungary), so he kept chasing Hungarians at the meeting, hoping to obtain one. Siobhan writes (p. 239):

“The Fields Medals went to Pierre Deligne, Charles Fefferman, Grigory Margulis, and Daniel Quillen. The Rubik’s cube went to Conway.”

After his Notes, David Singmaster produced a follow-up newsletter “The Cubic Circular”. Only 5 magazines were published, of which 3 were double issues, between the Autumn of 1981 and the summer of 1985.

These magazines were reproduced on this page.

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The return of the Scottish solids

In Januari’s issue of the Notices of the AMS there’s a paper by Mohammad Ghomi Dürer’s Unfolding Problem for Convex Polyhedra.

Here are the opening lines:

“Convex polyhedra are among the oldest mathematical objects. Indeed the five platonic solids, which constitute the climax of Euclid’s books, were already known to the ancient people of Scotland some 4,000 years ago; see Figure 1.”

It sure would make a good story, the (ancient) Scotts outsmarting the Greek in discovering the five Platonic solids. Sadly, the truth is different.

Once again, hat tip to +David Roberts on Google+ for commenting on the AMS announcement and for linking to a post by John Baez and a couple of older posts here refuting this claim.

Perhaps the most readable of the two posts is:

Scottish solids, final(?) comments

in which I tell the story of the original post and its aftermath. The bottom-line is this:

Summarizing : the Challifour photograph is not taken at the Ashmolean museum, but at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and consists of 5 of their artifacts (or 4 if ball 3 and 4 are identical) vaguely resembling cube, tetrahedron, dodecahedron (twice) and octahedron. The fifth Platonic solid, the icosahedron, remains elusive.

David Roberts drafted a letter to the editor of the Notices of the AMS.

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