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National Amateur Press Association
Monthly Bundle Sample, Boxwooder 357, p.2
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

 

    Last updated: 03/05/2000