NOT the anti-“Mathematician’s Apology”


When people hear you are writing a book, for some reason they want to know two things:  what the book is about, and what it will be called.  I was evasive on the first question (and I still am, though I have finally figured out the right answer, and it will be revealed in due time) but I was always happy to test my latest working title.  I had originally considered calling the book No Apologies.  It projects a spirit of defiance and it expresses one of the book’s main themes:  that the meaning and the appeal of mathematics can’t be understood unless mathematics is seen as an end rather than as a means to something else — specifically to (philosophical) truth, (utilitarian) good, or (quasi-artistic) beauty.   The choice nevertheless had a clear drawback:   the unmistakeable allusion to Hardy’s  A Mathematician’s Apology might lead the reader to think that the “spirit of defiance” is primarily directed at Hardy, which was an impression I hoped to avoid.

In any case, I was told Mitt Romney had preempted No Apologies for the book that launched his 2012 presidential campaign.  I therefore submitted the book proposal to Princeton University Press in March 2011 without a title.  There was a complete list of chapters that closely matches the present table of contents, the main change being the decision to break up the number theory section into four parts and follow each of them with a dialogue, for the reasons explained in the preface.   It’s not PUP tradition to draw up a contract for an untitled book, however, so the contract signed in June 2011 was for a book entitled No Apologies; it was understood that this would change, probably more than once, before the book finally went to press.

I know that by late 2012 the title had mutated to How to Explain Mathematics at a Dinner Party, soon rejected for the reasons explained here.   Soon thereafter the working title must have become Not Merely Good, True, and Beautiful because that is how my opus is referenced in Ian Hacking’s Why Is There Philosophy of Mathematics at All?  My records show that in May 2013 the title was

Not Merely Good, True, and Beautiful: Mathematics without Apologies.

But when I tried this out on a New York philosopher, he immediately smiled and told me
that I had decided to write a book no one would want to read.  Meanwhile, the PUP staff found the title confusing and suggested

           Math for Its Own Sake  (which I’ve already said is not the message of the book)
           What It’s Like to Be a Mathematician (too neutral for its own good)

while my editor, Vickie Kearn, suggested flipping the two halves:

Mathematics without Apologies:  Not Merely Good, True, and Beautiful

With the help of a “focus group” consisting of a tightly-knit circle of friends in Brooklyn,
together with scattered mathematical colleagues, this became

Mathematics without Apologies:  Beyond the Good, the True, and the Beautiful

All was well until the marketing people turned this down. It would be nice to be able to say that this precipitated a nervous breakdown; but while it did make me very nervous, I reacted positively, by expanding my focus group.  Under the influence of the Nietzche quotation that serves as the epigraph of the Afterword:

The attraction of everything problematic, the joy of X, however, is too great in such more     spiritual, more spiritualized people,

I came up with two alternatives:

          The charm of the problematic:  Mathematics without apologies
          Problematic attractions:  Mathematics without apologies

Everything came to a head around January 2014 because it was time to design a cover and
you can’t do that without a title.   Here is what I wrote to Vickie:

Various titles have been tested on friends.  “Beyond the Good, the True, and the Beautiful” didn’t meet with much approval.  I tried reviving “How to Talk about Mathematics at a Dinner Party,” and a few friends who have nothing to do with mathematics thought this would attract attention, but a few more scientific friends hated it.  So the current favorite is

Problematic attractions:  Mathematics without apologies.

Marketing came back with two new suggestions:

         The Heartbeat of Science:  An Insider’s Guide to the Life of a Pure Mathematician
(which subordinates pure mathematics to science)
A Beautiful Grind:  An Insider’s Guide to the Life of a Pure Mathematician (no comment)

After a few more rounds with the focus group, Mathematics without Apologies moved back to the first half of the title, and Problematic Attractions by some obscure process became Problematic Vocation.  Probably this was a reaction to whatever was set off by this message to Vickie:

I am not at all into the narrative of heroic enlightenment overcoming the obstacles of an
uncaring or hostile world.  The pure mathematician is a problematic figure who has to face
real moral as well as intellectual challenges, and who is never really pure (I need to put
that somewhere).

Everything was now in place apart from Portrait.  Vickie was trying to bring me back to earth from the state of exaltation evident in that last quote:

 I know you don’t want to show your hand and you want readers to figure it out  as they read the book but  most  people won’t  buy a book if they don’t have an idea of what it is about.

I probably don’t have to tell you that actually getting people to BUY the book would have been the least of my concerns — but I didn’t want to disappoint all the thoughtful people at PUP who had been working so hard in the real world for three years.  So I made a special effort to finish the subtitle:

          Inner Lives of a Problematic Vocation
          A Composite Self-Portrait of a Problematic Vocation
          Self-Portrait of a Problematic Vocation

PUP made the final edit and the title was finally in its present form by February 10, 2014.


2 thoughts on “NOT the anti-“Mathematician’s Apology”

  1. Pingback: Souciant laddishness and the gender question in mathematics | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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