Monday, December 31, 2007

Presidential Math

On Jan 3 is the Iowa Caucus, the first contest (or something) in the US Presidential race. The question arises: Which presidents knew the most mathematics? The question has several answers depending on how you define "know" and "mathematics". Rather than answer it, I'll list a few who know some mathematics.
  1. Jimmy Carter (President 1976-1980, lost re-election) was trained as a Nuclear Engineer, so he knew some math a long time before becoming president. (I do not know if he ever actually had a job as an Engineer.) I doubt he knew much when he was president.
  2. Herbert Hoover (President 1928-1932, lost re-election) was a Mining Engineer and actually did it for a while and was a success. Even so, I doubt he know much when he was president.
  3. James Garfield (President 1881-1881, he was assassinated) Had a classical education and came up with a new proof of the Pythagorean Theorem
  4. Thomas Jefferson (President 1801-1809) had a classical education and is regarded by historians as being a brilliant man. He invented a Crypto system in 1795. Note that this is only 6 years before becoming president, so he surely knew some math when he was president.
  5. Misc: Lyndon B. Johnson was a high school math teacher, Ulysses S. Grant wanted to me one but became president instead. George Washington was a surveyor which needs some math. Many of the early presidents had classical educations which would include Euclid. And lastly, Warren G. Harding got an early draft of Van Der Waerden's theorem, conjectured the polynomial VDW, but was only able to proof the quadratic case (not surprising—he is known as one of our dumber presidents).
I would guess that Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover knew more math (there was far more to know) then Jefferson, but Jefferson knew more as a percent of what there was to know, then Carter and Hoover. Garfield, while quite smart, probably does not rank in either category. I don't think any of the current major candidates were trained in Math. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Rudy Guilliani, and Mitt Romney were all trained as lawyers. Rudy Guillian and Mitt Romney have been businessman as well. Huckabee was a minister, McCain was a soldier. I do not know what they majored in as undergrads.


  1. Speaking of presidents, did you see Elon Musk's interview on Think Tank. He was asked about politicians. He said "George W Bush is like Reagon without the brains."

    Elon Musk is the founder/cofounder of PayPal, Tesla motors, Solar City, SpaceX, one of the most talented Silicon Valley businessman and physicist.

  2. Elon Musk is the founder/cofounder of PayPal, Tesla motors, Solar City, SpaceX, one of the most talented Silicon Valley businessman and physicist.

    So what he says must be true!

    PS: Calling him a physicist is stretching things...

  3. I doubt McCain would call himself a soldier.

    Why don't you head down to Annapolis and ask how many of the cadets self-identify as "soldiers"?

  4. I guess the real question is to what extent this knowledge translates into something of consequence.
    On a recent trip to MPI in Germany, I had dinner with an academic who knew Angela Merkel from her quantum chemistry days (she's published in that area). So, a good question would be - is the president's scientific background making a difference "on the ground"? I'd be curious to know...

  5. A currently relevant question is whether a 1972 PhD from the University of Warwick (UK) in Algebraic Topology will help this former vice-president of Kenya un-knot the current electoral crisis in Kenya.

  6. Regarding Carter: He does have a BS in physics and did do some graduate work in nuclear physics -- he planned to work on a nuclear sub for the Navy before he changed his mind and went into politics.

    I don't know if he ever was a practicing engineer, but I think he worked for a nuclear power plant for a while. Chances are he knew some math at one point.

  7. Interesting post. Many on that list are considered failures. It should probably be a warning to the numerically inclined not to micro-manage things. As a leader of a large organization you need to learn how to spend your time load balancing instead of doing the computation yourself.

  8. In his autobiography, Ulysses S Grant writes about the possibility of his becoming a mathematics teacher at the US Military Academy at West Point, or at "some other respectable college."

    He went off to fight Mexicans instead.

  9. To be fair, Jefferson probably "knew more as a percent of what there was to know" than the world's most educated math-genius today.

  10. Jefferson died effectively bankrupt. Carter nearly went bankrupt because his economy sunk the blind trust that his assets were held in. Hoover ushered in the Great Depression. Grant was an alcoholic and had one of the most corrupt administrations on record and managed to engineer the panic of 1873.
    I'm not so sure that a high profficiency in math is a good thing for presidents.

    1. One thing is for sure.Spelling not be your best subjeck or ure grahmer.