The ethics of uselessness


June 2, 2016 by AK

On a pretty much randomly googled web page, I read that G. H. Hardy had failed to visit an ailing Ramanujan out of snobbery and “Bourbakist inhumanity.”

I’m going to boast that I guessed the author of this (remarkably incongruous) claim within two or three minutes. The anachronistic use of “Bourbakist” as a swearword gave him away.

It was the great mathematician Vladimir I. Arnold (1937-2010), who shocked rarefied souls with his maxim that mathematics is the section of physics in which experimentation is cheap. He disapproved of attempts to sever mathematics from its roots in the natural world. He might have felt it would also be ethically perverse, hence the “inhumanity.”

Hardy was a self-consciously “pure” mathematician. However, most of the Bourbaki group were still schoolchildren when Ramanujan died.


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