Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

What is “Common Infirmities”?

The title of this blog refers to one of the most insightfully snarky observations on the eternal arrogance of intellectuals in general, and mathematicians in particular, from Gulliver’s Travels. Describing the habits of the Laputans, a people ruled by mathematics and mathematicians, Gulliver explains:

Their houses are very ill built, the walls bevil, without one right angle in any apartment; and this defect arises from the contempt they bear to practical geometry, which they despise as vulgar and mechanic; those instructions they give being too refined for the intellects of their workmen, which occasions perpetual mistakes.  And although they are dexterous enough upon a piece of paper, in the management of the rule, the pencil, and the divider, yet in the common actions and behaviour of life, I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people, nor so slow and perplexed in their conceptions upon all other subjects, except those of mathematics and music.  They are very bad reasoners, and vehemently given to opposition, unless when they happen to be of the right opinion, which is seldom their case.  Imagination, fancy, and invention, they are wholly strangers to, nor have any words in their language, by which those ideas can be expressed; the whole compass of their thoughts and mind being shut up within the two forementioned sciences.

[…] But what I chiefly admired, and thought altogether unaccountable, was the strong disposition I observed in them towards news and politics, perpetually inquiring into public affairs, giving their judgments in matters of state, and passionately disputing every inch of a party opinion.  I have indeed observed the same disposition among most of the mathematicians I have known in Europe, although I could never discover the least analogy between the two sciences; unless those people suppose, that because the smallest circle has as many degrees as the largest, therefore the regulation and management of the world require no more abilities than the handling and turning of a globe; but I rather take this quality to spring from a very common infirmity of human nature, inclining us to be most curious and conceited in matters where we have least concern, and for which we are least adapted by study or nature.

As one of those arrogant mathematicians myself, who will not hesitate here to express at length my curiosity and conceit in matters that neither concern me, and in which I claim no special expertise, I put this reminder at the top, to keep my own conceit in check, or at least to keep my humour about it.

The original version of this blog was an account of my family’s move from California to Canada, and observations on that lovely northern land. When the Canadian adventure turned sour and we packed up and moved to Oxford, this became my Moving to the UK blog. But the topics drifted quickly from the title, and have tended to focus on issues of science and society, politics, finance, and academia.

My academic work and other writings may be found on my home page.

David Steinsaltz

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