Saturday, September 15, 2007

Hardy and Ramanujan

Gilbert and Gubar open The Madwoman in the Attic provocatively with the question, "Is the pen a metaphorical penis?" Their aim is to show how literary creativity has historically been figured as specifically masculine. It's a nice opening, because it makes you think, "oh, those crazy 70's feminists!" And then they go on to quote male author after male author who makes it clear that he thinks the pen is a metaphorical penis.

I recently ran across an article [.pdf] by Moon Duchin that touches on the same subject, only with respect to the idea of mathematical genius. Moon's language is, of course, much more measured than Gilbert and Gubar's, but it's a fascinating read even sans provocative introductions.

A more substantial difference is the way that Moon addresses mathematical genius in particular. Mathematical genius and any other kind of genius were once pretty much the same (masculine) idea, but mathematical genius has since branched off and become a special creature on its own, due in part, I suspect, to the redistribution of cultural capital that attended industrialization. The article gestures toward some reasons why mathematics as a field has become the location of genius par excellence, which is in itself an interesting question.

One of Moon's examples of the mythologizing of mathematical genius is the biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan (the Wikipedia entry, as of this writing, reproduces many of the features Moon identifies--and his "genius" is brought up in the very first sentence). I didn't know much about Ramanujan before reading Moon's article; I'd always thought of him as "guy whose name is attached to theorems I don't understand."

This week the New York Times has a review of David Leavitt's novel The Indian Clerk, a fictionalized account of the relationship between G.H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan. I'm almost tempted to read it to see what it does to the genius paradigm. Predictably, the review contains some howlers, to wit:
Class, like mathematics, consists of complex equations that may shift with the substitution of different values for X and Y, but the equations themselves remain rigid and fixed.
I'd be interested to see what, exactly, Leavitt does with class (surely he doesn't evaluate some equations).

I've long been contemplating a "poetry for physicists" syllabus, but I'd never considered using a novel (it would ruin the poetry gimmick, don't you know). I guess The Indian Clerk goes somewhere at the bottom of my reading list.

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