If Wikipedia says so…

Mathematical autobiog

The Wikipedia page Mathematician has a section devoted to Mathematical autobiographies and Mathematics without Apologies is on the list.  Although it’s not an autobiography!  And it’s in good company:  Littlewood’s A Mathematician’s Miscellany, although it includes a chapter on the author’s mathematical education, is not an autobiography either; this doesn’t stop it from being listed as a mathematical autobiography on this and another Wikipedia page.   The two lists hardly overlap, and I suppose the good news is that Wikipedia is not very helpful if you’re looking for an actual list of biographies and autobiographies of mathematicians — good news if you hope there’s a future for professional scholarship.

If I were to write an autobiography, I might elaborate my mixed feelings about Wikipedia.  It’s a great place to start if you’re looking for information about anything, but the quality of the scholarship is very uneven.  I’ve found mistakes, misattributions, apocryphal quotations, hearsay, and questionable judgments (like the one about my supposed contribution to the genre of autobiography).  Generally speaking I’ve found the quality declines the farther one gets from the hard core of a discipline.  So some history pages are excellent, and so are some pages on technical mathematics; but I had to double check any Wikipedia claims about history of mathematics (in English; French pages tend to be better).

It all must depend on who decides to volunteer.  And it raises interesting questions about who gets to write the official record and who gets to police disciplinary boundaries.

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3 thoughts on “If Wikipedia says so…

  1. Harold Bursztajn

    Thought provoking, thank you. Perhaps it also raises the question as to whether any history of ideas can be free of autobiography, is there as per Tom Nagel, a view from nowhere, and should one be less on guard for one’s own autobiographical errors and omissions be than for the Wikepedia’s entries.

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    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      In the book of 365 definitions of mathematics, today’s definition could be “The view from nowhere.” That’s naturally the vantage point toward which an idealized mathematician would be striving, even in writing an autobiography. Or maybe the mathematician is already nowhere by virtue of idealization.

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  2. Andrea61

    Regarding Wikipedia, and Wiki’s technical math pages in particular, I am frequently annoyed by how much is lost in translation (into my native Italian language). Too many times accurate and well written pages become sloppy and vague if not simply wrong, as if the translator had little or no understanding of the material.

    I tell students that they can check Wiki if they want to, but they are adviced to go to the English version for better reliability.

    I don’t know if that is a problem in other languages too.

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