Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

There was an interesting article in Der Spiegel about Angela Merkel’s visit to a Berlin secondary school as part of the the “EU-Projekttag”, a national day for teaching about the EU and its institutions. (No surprise that nothing like this happens in Britain.) This school has mostly Muslim immigrant children, and she found that instead of asking about the functions of the European Parliament the children wanted to tell her about discrimination in Germany.

Fatma, eine 15-jährige Jugendliche mit Kopftuch, klagt über Schwierigkeiten beim Praktikum im Kindergarten, weil die Eltern keine Erzieherinnen mit Kopftuch wollen. Das habe ihr Chef ihr gesagt. Ja ja, sagt Merkel, die inmitten der Schüler auf der Bühne Platz genommen hat, man kenne das Problem von Bewerbungen junger Menschen mit komplizierten, ausländisch klingenden Namen. “Viele glauben da nicht, dass jetzt gleich ein Nobelpreisträger in Mathematik um die Ecke kommt.”

[Fatma, a 15-year-old with head-scarf, complains about her difficulties in an internship in a kindergarten, because the parents don’t want a teacher with head-scarf. Her boss told her that. Yes, yes, says Merkel, who is sitting on the podium with the students, we know these problems, as with job applications from young people with complicated, foreign-sounding names. “Many people don’t think, this is a future Nobel-prize winner in mathematics coming around the corner.”]

Never mind this bizarre and nearly incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness from a major world leader asked an uncomfortable question by a 15-year-old. What is it about the chimeric Nobel prize in mathematics? Alfred Nobel established prizes in subjects that were related to the kind of practical science that he made his fortune with (chemistry and physics) and to the kind of selfless causes (medicine, literature, peace) that he hoped would blur the association of his name with weapons manufacture. There are lots of subjects that he did not create prizes in. Mathematics. Geology. Engineering. Astronomy. History. Cooking. No one thinks it odd that any of these subjects don’t have a Nobel prize, except mathematics. They think it so odd, that they either imagine that there actually is one, as above, or they invent outlandish stories to explain this lacuna, generally involving some mathematician — Gosta Magnus Mittag-Leffler, when he is given a name — running off with Nobel’s wife. (This story has the advantage of Mittag-Leffler actually having been Swedish, but the fact that Nobel never married is usually counted against its credibility.)

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