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John_Baez comments on Vanity and Ambition in Mathematics - Less Wrong Discussion

9 Post author: multifoliaterose 12 October 2010 05:49AM

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Comment author: John_Baez 14 October 2010 02:34:41AM *  14 points [-]

In my 25 years of being a professional mathematician I've found many (though certainly not all) mathematicians to be acutely aware of status, particularly those who work at high-status institutions. If you are a research mathematician your job is to be smart. To get a good job, you need to convince other people that you are smart. So, there is quite a well-developed "pecking order" in mathematics.

I believe the appearance of "humility" in the quotes here arises not from lack of concern with status, but rather various other factors:

1) Most of us know that there are mathematicians much better than us: mathematicians who could, with their little pinkie on a lazy Sunday afternoon, accomplish deeds that we might struggle vainly for years to achieve.

2) Many of us realize that it's wiser to emphasize our shortcomings than boast of our accomplishments.

By the way: people quoted in this article are all extremely high in status, and indeed it's mostly such mathematicians who wind up talking about themselves publicly, answering questions like "Can you remember when and how you became aware of your exceptional mathematical talent?" Every mathematician worth his or her salt knows of Hironaka, Langlands, Gromov, Thurston and Grothendieck. So these are not typical mathematicians: they are our heroes, our gods.

It is nice having humble gods. But still, they're not stupid: they know they're our gods.

Comment author: John_Baez 14 October 2010 05:12:02AM 6 points [-]

The author of this post pointed out that he said "t's noticeably less common for mathematicians of the highest caliber to engage in status games than members of the general population do." Somehow I hadn't noticed that.

I'm not sure how this affects my reaction, but I wouldn't have written quite what I wrote if I'd noticed that qualifier.

Comment author: ThomasR 14 October 2010 09:43:29AM 2 points [-]

My experiences, as a kind of outsider who is just curious about some themes in math too and asks around for infos, explanations and preprints/slides, is that mathematicians are by far the easiest science community to communicate with. I conclude that status is of little relevance.

Comment author: ParsiZad 21 November 2013 11:56:14PM 1 point [-]

Mathematicians are like everyone else, a human, susceptible to the common people tendencies, unless there is 'something' in mathematical thinking that would put them into a different category, more human (the definition of to be a human even if in the strict sense of mathematical rigor would fail, wouldn't it?) or less human ( (a thinking machine).