A bomb in mathematics

I’ve just been reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. It’s more than a century old, and I was surprised to find it such an acute analysis of the psychology of terrorism. It follows the planning and aftermath of a ridiculous and botched scheme to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The ringleader Mr Verloc, the “secret agent” of the title, who spends his time infiltrating anarchist organisations, is put up to it by his employer, the embassy of an unnamed Central Asian nation. The crime seems almost entirely unmotivated. The new First Secretary of the embassy is irked by Verloc’s indolence and apparent uselessness, and seeks to prod him into making some exertions for his salary. The inane goal of the attack is to show up the ineptitude of the English police, and so stimulate an autocratic turn in its inconveniently soft and democratic government. Plus ça change… The target must be such as to seem senseless (hence not a tiresomely conventional target, like a crown prince or a government building), important (hence not the National Gallery — “There would be some screaming, of course, but from whom? Artists — art critics and such like — people of no account. No one minds what they say.”) and sufficiently menacing. He announces

The demonstration must be against learning—science.  But not every science will do.  The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy.  Since bombs are your means of expression, it would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics.  But that is impossible…  What do you think of having a go at astronomy?

I was also amused by the comment of the bomb engineer:

The system’s worked perfectly.  And yet you would think that a common fool in a hurry would be much more likely to forget to make the contact altogether.  I was worrying myself about that sort of failure mostly.  But there are more kinds of fools than one can guard against.  You can’t expect a detonator to be absolutely fool-proof.

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