(This post is inspired by the death of Ted Kaczynski who died on June 10, 2023.)

From 1978 until 1995 23 mailbombs were sent to various people. 3 caused deaths, the rest caused injuries. The culprit was nicknamed *The Unabomber* (I wonder if he liked that nickname.) For more on his story see here.

The culprit was Ted Kaczynski. He had a BS in Math from Harvard in Mathematics in 1962, and a PhD in Math from The Univ of Michigan in 1967. He got a job in the Berkeley math dept but resigned in 1969. He soon thereafter moved to a shack in the woods (I wonder if his prison accommodations were better) and began sending out the mailbombs.

When he was caught in 1995 he was (a) famous and (b) a mathematician. That last point is debatable in that I doubt he was doing math while living in his shack. But we will ignore that point for now. Would you call him a famous mathematician? If so then he was, in 1995, the most famous living mathematician.

In 1995 Andrew Wiles proved Fermat's Last theorem (this is not quite right- there was a bug and it was fixed with help from Richard Taylor) and he was, for a brief time, the world's most famous living mathematician, though perhaps Wiles and Kaczinski were tied. Wiles made People magazine's 25 most intriguing people of the year! (NOTE- I originally had, incorrectly that Wiles had proven it in 1986. A comment alerted me to the error which makes the story MORE interesting since Ted and Andrew were competing for Most Famous Living Mathemticians!)

Terry Tao won the Fields medal (2006) AND the MacArthur Genius award (2006) AND the breakthrough award (2015). The last one got him a spot on *The Colbert Report (2014)* (See here,) For those 15 minutes he might have been the most famous living mathematician. He did not have much competition for the honor.

And then there is Grigori Perelman who solved the Ponicare Conjecture and declined the Fields Medal and the Millennium prize (Colbert commented on this, see here.) For a very brief time Perelman may have been the most famous living mathematician. He did not have much competition for the honor.

The most famous mathematicians of all time: Pythagoras of Samos, Euclid, Lewis Carroll.

1) Pythagoras might not count since its not clear how much he had to do with his theorem.

2) Lewis Carroll is the most interesting case. He IS famous. He DID do Mathematics. He DID mathematics while he wrote the books that made him famous. So he is a *famous mathematician *but he is not famous for his math. But that does not quite seem right.

3) The Math version of AND and the English version of AND are different. Lewis Carroll is FAMOUS and Lewis Caroll is A MATHEMATICIAN but it doesn't seem quite right to call him a FAMOUS MATHEMATICIAN. Same for Ted K. Andrew W was, for a short time, a legit FAMOUS MATHEMATICIAN.

3) Stephen Hawkings has appeared on ST:TNG and his voice on The Simpsons, Futurama, The Big Bang Theory. He is famous for a combination of his disability, his expository work, and his Physics. Is he a *famous actor*?

4) Science expositors like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson are famous for being expositors of science, not quite for their science. How do Professor Proton and Bill Nye the Science Guy fit into this?

5) Looking at Ted K, Andrew W, Terry T, Grigori P one other point comes up: All of them were famous for a short time but it faded QUICKLY. So- fame is fleeting!

When I was in grad school, the joke was that the only famous mathematicians were Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) and Russel Crowe (Beautiful Mind).

ReplyDeleteIs Euclid even famous? The general public knows Pythagoras (but only because of his name on the theorem) and Lewis Caroll (but then only as an actor), but at least they will have some name recognition. Euclid, on the other hand, I doubt his name will ring a bell among the majority of the general public.

ReplyDelete1) I think you meant that Lewis Carroll is know as an AUTHOR, not an ACTOR. (2) GOOD POINT- I THOUGHT Euclid was well known because Geometry is taught in HS, but it is no longer taught out of Euclid and indeed, my intuitions may have a problem with time displacement. At one time Euclid was more known- but only among those who are educated.

DeleteYes, my fault, I meant author. There are two mathematicians I can think off who may have some name recognition among the general public for there work as a mathematician. First name is Alan Turing. And then mostly for his work in breaking the Enigma code, not for his work on computing. The second name would be sir Isaac Newton. Although he may be more known for his work in Physics (but it's often hard to draw the exact line between Mathematics and Physics)

DeleteThat last comment was by me, Bill Gasarch. The automatic mechanims that labels my comments as from me seems to not be working for me right not. I'll ask Lance about how to fix that.

ReplyDeleteActually Lewis Carroll is also a little known for his work on lawn tennis tournaments - basically the mathematical question there was how many comparisons does it take to identify both the largest and second largest element in a set.

ReplyDeleteFLT's proof was officialy published in May 1995, not 1986, and the Unabomber Manifesto was published in September 1995. There was a good competition that year.

ReplyDeleteThanks! Fixed! (This is Bill G)

DeleteThanks for the reply! Actually the first "proof" was announced in 1993, which was reported on NYT front page though featuring a photo of Fermat instead of Wiles. The 95 published proof including both Wiles and Taylor-Wiles was complete, while the final blow was made in 94. Also in late 94, Nash won his Nobel prize, so he could also compete in 95 but his fame probably peaked during 2001-2002 when the film was released and awarded an Oscar.

DeleteAH- what makes one more famous- winning a Nobel prize OR being the subject of a good movie. I wonder if the movie helped Nash win the Nobel prize.

DeleteIt seems unlikely that the movie helped Nash win a Nobel prize, as the prize predates the movie by a good number of years. He was awarded the prize in 1994, the book the movie was based on was published in 1998, and the movie itself dates from 2001.

ReplyDeleteThanks for the clarification!

ReplyDeleteI think Newton has to be in your list.

ReplyDelete