The Canadian who reinvented mathematics

That’s the title of an article published today at the Toronto star’s website.  The Canadian is, of course, Robert Langlands.  Sandro Contenta, the author of the article, claims to have given up mathematics after the fourth grade, but he makes a courageous and largely successful effort to communicate the importance and something of the spirit of the Langlands program.

It’s also not bad as a portrait of Langlands’s personality.   Ed Frenkel and Jim Arthur help put everything in perspective.

A memorable quotation:

“If in the middle of the night you wake up and there’s some fusion between the mathematical objects and the real world, then you’re mad.

And if you’re lucky, it’s just fatigue and not some permanent dysfunction.” (Langlands)

The article quote Langlands as saying that “The decision” to apply for a job in Turkey in the mid-1960s “freed me and I began to amuse myself with mathematics without any grand hopes or serious intentions,” and this led to his great breakthrough during the Christmas break of 1966-67.  Compare this with Richard Feynman’s account (quoted in Chapter 10) of his breakthrough:

I relaxed and started to play … with rotation… and that just led me back into quantum electrodynamics… and I continued to play with it in the relaxed fashion … and in very short order I worked out the things for which I later won the Nobel prize.

Serious intentions do work for some people, of course.

(Thanks to David Goss for alerting me to the article.)


4 thoughts on “The Canadian who reinvented mathematics

  1. Voynich

    I experienced just such a fusion last night: I “realized” that sexual intercourse is the formation of fiber products in the category of humans, and that children are coequalizers of their parents.



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