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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Which mathematician had the biggest gap between fame and contribution?

(I was going to call this entry  Who was the worst mathematician of all time? but Clyde Kruskal reminded me that its not (say) Goldbach's fault that his conjecture got so well known, in fact its a good thing! I'll come back to Goldbach later.)

Would Hawking be as well known if he didn't have ALS?  I suspect that within Physics yes, but I doubt he would have had guest shots on ST:TNG, The Simpsons, Futurama, and The Big Bang Theory (I just checked the IDMB database- they don't mention Futurama but they do say he's a Capricorn. I find that appalling that they mention a Scientists Horoscope.) I also doubt there would be a movie about him.

Would Turing be as well known if he wasn't gay and didn't die young  (likely because of the ``treatment'') would he be as well known? I suspect that within Computer Science yes, but I doubt there would be a play, a movie, and there are rumors of a musical. Contrast him with John von Neumann who one could argue contributed as much as Turing, but, alas, no guest shots on I Love Lucy, no movie, no Rap songs about him. (The only scientist that there may be a rap song about is Heisenberg, and that doesn't count since it would really be about Walter White.)

Hawking and Turing are/were world class in their fields. Is there someone who is very well known but didn't do that much?

SO we are looking for a large gap between how well known the person is and how much math they actually did. This might be unfair to well-known people (it might be unfair to ME since complexityblog makes me better known than I would be otherwise).  However, I have AN answer that is defensible. Since the question is not that well defined there prob cannot be a definitive answer.

First lets consider Goldbach (who is NOT my answer). He was a professor  of math and did some stuff on the Theory of curves, diff eqs, and infinite series. Certainly respectable. But if not for his
conjecture (every even number is the sum of two primes- still open)  I doubt we would have heard of him.

My answer: Pythagoras! He is well known as a mathematician but there is no evidence that he had any connection to the theorem that bears his name.

Historians (or so-called historians) would say that it was well known that he proved the theorem, or gave the first rigorous proof, or something, but there is no evidence. Can people make things up out of whole cloth? Indeed they can.

Witness this Mr. Clean Commercial which says:  they say that after seeing a magician make his assistant disappear Mr Clean came up with a product that makes dirt disappear- the magic eraser. REALLY? Who are ``they''? Is this entire story fabricated? Should we call the FCC :-) ANYWAY, yes, people can and do make up things out of whole cloth and then claim they are well known. Even historians.

Commenters: I politely request that if you suggest other candidates for large gap then they be people who died before 1950 (arbitrary but firm deadline). This is not just out of politeness to the living and recently deceased, its also because these questions needs time. Kind of like people who want to rank George W Bush or Barack Obama as the worst prez of all time--- we need lots more time to evaluate these things.




21 comments:

  1. If fame is to be mentioned at all, one can never forget aLBERT eINSTEIN. He is associated with Relativity Theory. Elementary students of physics clearly know that special relativity is due to Poincare & Lorentz. Even when eINSTEIN was asked how to approach relativity, he replied "Lorentz Transformations".

    General Relativity is due to Hilbert who submitted & published before eINSTEIN.

    Read the book: "The Incorrigble Plagiarist"


    best,

    Rafee Kamouna.

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  2. Guillaume de l'Hôpital: Known even to most highschool students for L'Hôpital's rule. It appears that Guillaume "bought" the theorem from Johann Bernoulli. Guillaume own contribution to mathematics was mostly as a teacher and textbook writer.

    Jørgen Pedersen Gram: Known from the Gram-Schmidt method, which is taught to any student taking linear algebra. According to the Wikipedia article, the method appeared earlier in the work of Laplace and Cauchy. Gram was a fine mathematician, but without having his name associated with this elementary method, he would probably have been rather unknown.

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  3. Turing had an important contribution in World War II as a codebreaker, so I think his fame is reasonable.
    The contibution of John von Neumann to most sciences is enormous and it is really wierd that he is not more famous than Einstein. There are many game theorists that got famous but von Neumann who is one of the founders of game theory is not so famous.

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  4. I'd like to point out that John Von Neumann did appear in a very famous film, namely, "Dr. Strangelove" by Stanley Kubrick.
    I agree however that, most probably, the vast majority of people who watch the film don't recognize him and he's certainly not as known as he'd deserve.

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    Replies
    1. but it wasn't John von Neumann who was parodied in Dr. Strangelove, it was Edward Teller...

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    2. von Neumann was one of the greats, certainly, but when it comes to computing he was preceded by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, from who he borrowed liberally.

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  5. There should also be a lowerbound of something like 1000 AD for when the candidate was born. Otherwise, his/her contributions may have been forgotten with the passage of time (which possibly happened with Pythagoras).

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  6. All Pythgoras philosophy & Math is due to Hermes of Egypt, the prophet in the old testament and the Holy Qur'an. He is born befote Noah. He is the founder of the ancient civilizations of both Egypt & Iraq.

    I strongly agree that von Neumann is not as famous as he should be, even calling the EDVAC, ENIAC etc. as Johniacs is not sufficient. Turing centennial tended to pose von Neumann as an implementor of the Universal Turing machine, which can simulate any Turing machine. Never ask the question:"Does it simulate itself?".It simulates itself iff it does not simulate itself. Absurdity!

    Can anyone see von Neumann implementing the paradoxical number:?

    Is the string the von Neumann architecture?

    It's impossible, tell the sun to leave the sky,

    It's impossible, ask a baby not to cry,

    Can the ocean keep from rushing to the shore?

    It's just impossible.


    Rafee Kamouna.

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  7. it seems sometimes very strange that these alpha-male like challenges show up in science. maybe these questions should be or are better left to science historians & not active scientists. reminds me of a semifamous stackexchange post "shark vs gorilla"

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  8. Regarding Pythagoras, members of the Pythagorean school generally contributed in the name of Pythagoras. Regardless of who actually came up with the idea. If I remember correctly, even the existence of one original 'Pythagoras' is debatable. There is a very nice chapter about this issue in Russells 'A History of Western Philosophy'.

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  9. No they don't. First the learn that the relevant equations were obtained to various degrees by Poincare, Lorentz and Minkowski all three of which didn't quite know what to make of them and their implications. Poincare in fact thought that further experiments might dispel the notion of relativity.

    Einstein on the other hand fully embraced relativity it with all of its consequences, developing a consistent theory around it.

    As usual major discoveries do not happen in isolation, and credit should be shared by more than one person, but if we insist in the "one person takes it all" model, credit goes to Einstein, with assists to both H.P. and H.L.

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    Replies
    1. Cannot agree more - it is not that the math is hard.

      It is the creativity and boldness to question the absolute nature of space and time.

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  10. Could GASARCH please start a blog of his own blog where he shall be free to enrich his followers with his important thoughts. For the rest of us, let us start a movement "blog.computationalcomplexity.org for computational complexity theorists!".

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    1. Hmm why not just skip over posts authored by GASARCH? It is not too hard to do that it would seem, or am I dumb or something?

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  11. Who was the worst (amateur) mathematician of all time?

    Me: André Luiz Barbosa. If possible, please see my papers:

    http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0907/0907.3965.pdf
    http://www.andrebarbosa.eti.br/the_cook-levin_theorem_is_false.pdf
    http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1501/1501.03872.pdf

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  12. One plausible big-gap answer  Galileo Galilei.

    Per wikipedia: "While Galileo's application of mathematics to experimental physics was innovative, his mathematical methods were the standard ones of the day."

    Opposite-sign big-gap answers  Nathaniel Bowditch (1773 – 1838), Hugo Tetrode (1895 – 1931), and Harold Stephen Black (1898 – 1983) ... for their innovative mathematical descriptions of (respectively) non-euclidean differential geometry, dynamical entropy, and feedback control ... all three achievements had transformational practical implications, and all three persons (arguably) deserve to be more generally appreciated.

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  13. Well, we know so little about Pythagoras and his contributions at all so I'd refrain from making judgements about their worth. However, he was probably quite influential as a mystic/esoteric/religious figure, that's where the fame comes from.

    Speaking of time frames where we have reliable information, l'Hopital is a serious contender. Maybe another could be Bayes, who got a whole field of statistics named after him; doesn't most of the credit for what we today call "Bayesian probability" go to Laplace?

    Then again, I hear that there's a conjecture that all famous theorems get named after wrong persons...

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  14. Ising. Every physicist knows the Ising model, but Ising was, I believe, a graduate student assigned the task of studying the Ising model in one dimension. He didn't invent the model, his advisor did, or so I am told. Ising then proved that the model did not order at any nonzero temperature. He then became disappointed in physics because it was hoped that the model would explain ferromagnetism, and he left physics. Years later, he learned that he was famous in the field.

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  15. Re: André Luiz Barbosa 11:26 AM, March 24, 2015
    "Who was the worst (amateur) mathematician of all time?
    Me: André Luiz Barbosa."

    For once, I finally agree with Mr Barbosa. Cheers.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you by agreeing. I've knew I would get it!!!

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