“The public image of maths as incomprehen-sible is only part of the story… Some of the hardest problems are the most simply stated”
© Peter M. Fisher/Corbis
Our cultural relationship with the world of mathematics is mythologised like no other academic discipline. While the natural sciences are seen to keep some roots planted in the soil of daily life, in inventions and cures and catastrophes, maths seems to float freely in an abstract realm of numbers, as much an art as a science. More than any white-coated boffin, its proponents are viewed as unworldly, with minds unfathomably different from ours. We revel in stories of lone geniuses who crack the most refractory problems yet reject status, prizes and even academic tenure. Maths is not just a foreign country but an alien planet.
Some of the stereotypes are true. When the wild-haired Russian Grigori Perelman solved the notorious Poincaré Conjecture in 2003, he declined first the prestigious Fields Medal and then (more extraordinarily to some) the $1m Millennium Prize officially awarded to him in 2010. The prize was one of seven offered by the non-profit US-based Clay Mathematics Foundation for solutions to seven of the most significant outstanding problems in maths.
Those prizes speak to another facet of the maths myth. It is seen as a range of peaks to be scaled: a collection of “unsolved problems,” solutions to which are guaranteed to bring researchers fame, glory and perhaps riches. In this way maths takes on a gladiatorial aspect, encouraging individuals to lock themselves away for years to focus on the one great feat that will make their reputation. Again, this is not all myth; most famously, Andrew Wiles worked in total secrecy in the 1990s to conquer Fermat’s Last Theorem. Even if maths is in practice more comradely than adversarial—people have been known to cease or avoid working on a problem because they know someone else is already doing so—nonetheless its practitioners can look like hermits bent on Herculean labours.
It is almost an essential part of this story that those labours are incomprehensible to outsiders. And that, too, is often the reality. I have reported for several years now on the Abel Prize, widely see as the “maths Nobel” (not least because it is awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters). Invariably, describing what the recipients are…