Amir Alexander’s Duel at Dawn is an account of the “romantic style of mathematics.” The style originated in the early 19th century and provided a narrative of the mathematical life and an image of the mathematician that persists to this day. Chapter 6 of Mathematics without Apologies builds on Alexander’s romantic model in an attempt to explain why mathematicians are so frequently depicted in popular culture as mad or martyrs or both at once. Near the end of his book, Alexander speculates on a possible change of model, a replacement of the romantic, both in mathematical practice and in popular perception, by a new figure. Perhaps, he writes, a “new mathematical practice in which computers take a major role will be accompanied by… a new legend… of the life and role of a mathematician,” whose iconic image is the “computer nerd.”
That looked extremely unlikely to me when I read those words. But over the past few years there has been increasing interest in computer-assisted proof and proof verification on the part of prominent mainstream mathematicians, as well as the mathematical establishment as a whole. This trilogy will explore some of the implications of a change of narrative. The implication I find most unpleasant is that, in such a world, the human mathematician will become dispensable (at least to the narrative). Or perhaps the promises and premises of what Jaron Lanier has called “Silicon Valley metaphysics” will be realized and no one will be know any longer where human ends and tech begins.
Unlike Alexander, I don’t think “nerd” is the most accurate term. “Geek” or “techie” is better; that’s what the devotees of Silicon Valley metaphysics call themselves. None of these terms will ever be remotely appropriate as a description of the actual human mathematicians whose words will be starring in the trilogy. I want to be very clear about that!
But Dawn of the Nerds has box-office potential.
The trilogy is likely to be some time in the making but I promise it will be finished in time for the Singularity.