Too much personality, not enough adjectives

My Nature review of the Siobhan Roberts biography of John Conway suggested that

His ways of being in the world, in Roberts’s telling, amount to a class of adjectives yet to be invented, to join his mathematical innovations.

Since I didn’t have time to invent the new adjectives before Nature‘s deadline, I resorted to a few  already in the dictionary, among them loquacious, joyous, playful, famous, mercurialuntidy, and outlandish, and reproduced some choice adjectives I found in the book (high-maintenance, generous, emotional, impassive, etc.).  Nature‘s Books and Arts editor settled on The Mercurial Mathematician) for the title.  (I had suggested All Play, No Work, which is obviously a wonderful and terrible advertisement for our profession — to quote a famous paper by Roger Howe out of context.)

And so John Conway, instead of being offered freshly-minted adjectives worthy of his uniqueness, is subjected to the indignity of joining Google’s astonishingly long and varied list of mercurial mathematicians, including (in Google rank order) Sydney Chapman, Norbert Weiner, Hypatia (in a poem, not for the first time), John Nash, George Eshiwani, Lionel Snell, Jack Edmonds, Alan Turing, Isaac Newton, Major General Sir Frederick Maurice, and the anonymous author of this blog, as well as a few others I didn’t have time to follow up.

To add to the confusion, the Guardian published an excerpt from Genius at Play as a “long read” under the title

The world’s most charismatic mathematician

One friend wrote to suggest I hold a copyright on the keyword charisma but I’ll let the Guardian use it as they see fit; MWA is mainly concerned with the word’s Weberian connotation.  Meanwhile, the contest to find a new adjective truly befitting Conway is still wide open.


6 thoughts on “Too much personality, not enough adjectives

  1. andream61

    Maybe an opportunity to exercise Proust’s “règle des trois adjectifs” ?


  2. Jon Awbrey

    My brother James is a social anthropologist who wrote a dissertation with constant reference to Weber and we used to have long discussions about the routinization of charisma. I came to it from the direction of Meno’s question whether virtue can be taught. So let us add virtuoso, adjective and substantive, to the krater before us.


  3. Pingback: Never minds! | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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