Walter Ledermann: Encounters of a Mathematician


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(Childhood in Berlin: 1911 - 1920 )

Preface


Mathematics is a soulless occupation devoid of feeling and human values. This or similar opinions are often expressed. Mathematics is certainly disliked by many.

Morris Kline quotes St Augustine as stating:

... the good Christian should beware of mathematicians.... The danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and to confine man in the bonds of hell.

Perhaps mathematicians are unpopular because they use a language that is inaccessible to others or at least had caused them much pain at school. On the other hand, it is this secret language that fosters in the mathematical community a feeling of solidarity and comradeship.

Moreover, there are no controversies or polemics in mathematics  excepting a few cases in the past when some branches of mathematics impinged on philosophy and certain mathematicians were not on speaking terms because they had different notions of infinity.

Now we may safely assume that when two mathematicians talk about their work they will listen to each other without prejudice and are glad to share ideas. Most of my contributions to research were the result of interaction with scholars of an older generation or with friends and colleagues.

The task of communicating mathematics has occupied me throughout my professional life. I enjoy lecturing to students and I am pleased to meet them individually. At a different level I am keen to explain mathematical concepts and results to people who are not mathematicians, but who have to use mathematics in their professional work.

In contrast to the opinions quoted at the beginning of this Preface, I feel strongly that mathematics can and should form part of human relationships. The encounters I have had in my career have been invaluable to me, and I am happy to recall them.

The purpose of this memoir is to emphasize the human dimension of mathematics, and I dedicate it in gratitude to my teachers, colleagues and students.


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(Childhood in Berlin: 1911 - 1920 )

JOC/EFR May 2009