There is a saying among mathematicians that ‘A bad Erdos can still be a good mathematician, but a bad Grothendieck is really terrible’. The message, if it needs to be spelled out, is that theorising in mathematics is something quite easy to get completely wrong, while the solving of concrete problems, even by someone of moderate abilities, can still contribute something of value to the community. This attitude, which in some cases can turn to sneering, is reasonably widespread, and elicits a certain fortitude of mind that must be cultivated by aspiring theoreticians. In physics, a similar sentiment, attributed to various distinguished past masters, is conveyed by the advice to ‘shut up and calculate’.
Well, I’ve been a bad Grothendieck most of my life while still managing to get by. I haven’t solved any hard problems of note, but I have developed a modest theory that synthesises homotopy theory and Diophantine geometry, which some excellent young mathematicians have been kind enough to think about and turn into interesting theorems. In addition to theorising, I mostly like to learn about mathematics, physics, economics, biology, history,…and generally distract myself from serious pursuits. It’s a combination of a minor miracle and ridiculous good luck that I’ve been granted a stable career path in spite of these woolly tendencies and a predilection for daydreaming. As it happens, I’ve held nine professorships on three continents and have enjoyed many years of fruitful and enjoyable conversations with a diverse group of scholars from across all of academia, most of whom have been very willing to answer my silly questions and teach me interesting things. I’ve also published five books on mathematics for the general public, with one of them staying within the top twenty bestsellers list in Korea for eight weeks, something I’ve been told is unprecedented in mathematics. No less than usual academic discussions, I greatly enjoy engaging people from outside universities in ideas that might be relevant, useful, profound and fun, an activity for which I’ve been given ample opportunities. There is very little to complain about in my life, considering the many privileges I’ve enjoyed while numerous mathematicians with far more talent, dedication and theorems were having a hard time.
However, since this story is supposed to be somewhat concerned with diversity, let’s return to the bit about Erdos and Grothendieck. Rather recently, I have begun to wonder if theorising is more or less tolerated depending on the type and background of the mathematician practicing it. I will illustrate this thought with the story of a dinner spent sitting next to a distinguished European scholar, who started at some point explaining to me the high quality of handicraft coming out of China and relating it to the nature of Chinese scholarship. In summary, according to her, ‘They really should concentrate on things like that and leave the theory to us.’ Of course I can’t remember the exact words, but I’m fairly sure that the meaning I convey is accurate. I’m also fairly sure she regretted immediately having said it.
Do people of a certain background find it harder to be taken seriously as a theoretician than others? Probably yes. I’m less sure that prevailing attitudes affected me personally. However, I do think reflecting on the matter helped me decide to be even less bashful with my theorising. I suppose it’s in part just an effect of growing old. In recent years, I am writing more freely my actual thoughts on mathematics, physics, and other things, and asking questions that reflect more accurately the twists and turns of my own (strange?) mind, even during a serious seminar. I’m also collaborating openly with people from other disciplines, physics, most naturally, but also literature and history. It’s quite possible that hard-nosed people, even among my friends, find it quite annoying when a person of modest intellectual means puts on the airs of a grand philosopher. If so, I am somewhat sorry!