After a little thought, I wondered if Wineland was just being
kind in not stating the truth of the matter. I think he could
have said, "Nonsense, you are twenty years old. If you were going
to be a mathematician you would be one now. You wouldn't be
wondering if it was the right field for you."
I remember reading somewhere that an 18-year-old asked
Mozart how to go about writing a symphony. Mozart told him that
he should probably stick to easier tasks. The young man then
said, "Well, you were writing symphonies at a much younger age
than I am."
"Yes," said Mozart, "but I didn't have to ask how to do it."
Wineland was right in that physics was more like what I believed
mathematics to be, and he was right in that most people have no
idea of what mathematicians do. Most scientists physicists,
chemists, biologists, etc. can quite easily identify their fields
and tell you exactly what their work consists of, and what they
would like to achieve. What is mathematics and what are
mathematicians trying to do? That's apparently not clear even to
mathematicians and is a total mystery to the rest of us. For
example, I suspect that all physicists believe they are simply
discovering existing natural laws, but mathematicians are divided
on whether they are discovering or creating mathematical facts.
Was Wineland right about the utility of what mathematicians do?
Well here's a quote from G. H. Hardy's
A Mathematician's Apology.
Hardy was one of Britain's most respected mathematicians in the
first half of this century.
"I have never done anything 'useful.' No discovery of mine has
made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or
ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have
helped train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same