As if adjective-deficiency were not already a nightmare for those of us who try to write about mathematics, the problem is about to be compounded by the new trend of characterizing prominent mathematicians by their kinds of minds, specified by choosing from an inevitably shrinking stock of acceptable adjectives. John Nash’s Beautiful Mind now has company: it was joined by John Horton Conway’s Curious Mind earlier this month, and now the New York Times has added Terry Tao’s Singular Mind. With trepidation I asked Google whether it could find me any mercurial minds, and what I found was so much more ghastly and dispiriting than what I had dared to fear (I don’t recommend you consult the result if you are a sensitive sleeper) that I lacked the courage to investigate whether any of these mercurial minds happened also to be mathematical.
In my research for Chapter 2 I was pleased to see that the IBM poster formerly known as “Men of Modern Mathematics” has been reconfigured as an app called “Minds of Modern Mathematics.” (I was pleased, that is, insofar as it’s possible to pleased that a physical object is now an app — but Ed Frenkel is now grappling in public with what this kind of transformation entails if taken to its logical — or illogical — conclusion and I am happy to leave it to him for the time being.) The challenge is now to attach a unique adjective to each of these modern mathematical minds, from Omar al-Khayyam to J.H.C. Whitehead. I am grateful that none of the reviews of MWA has appended an adjective to the author’s mind — probably because the more insightful reviewers recognize that the author, as a fictional character, cannot unambiguously be said to have a mind.
Even a fictional author, however mindless, has an authorial voice, and I am gratified, if a little embarrassed, that the Choice reviewer found mine “intriguing.”