Hardy on blogging

Having had to dig out G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology to look up what he had to say about the number 153, it was inevitable that I would re-read it, and wonder what attitude Hardy would have taken to mathematics blogging.

Hardy, as well as being a great mathematician, was a great expositor. His Course of Pure Mathematics was my first undergraduate textbook, and what a great foundation it was. I had to read carefully the chapter on Kronecker’s Theorem in Hardy and Wright’s Theory of Numbers recently. I haven’t read Inequalities, by Hardy, Littlewood and Pólya. All three are classics.

A different sort of book is his Ramanujan. While the first chapter, a short biography of Ramanujan and the story of his collaboration with Hardy, is undoubtedly the one most people read, the rest is a good exposition of Ramanujan’s work. This book does resemble a sequence of blog posts, in the way that a Dickens novel betrays its origin as a serialisation in a magazine.

Of course, we can’t know what Hardy would think of the blogs of Terry Tao and Tim Gowers, for example. But in view of his own expository writings, it is a bit of a shock to read the first two sentences in A Mathematician’s Apology:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done.

Gowers and Tao (and I) would no doubt disagree, but there is Hardy’s opinion in black and white, apparently.

However, on the penultimate page of the book, when he is in more autobiographical mode (describing how and why he became a mathematician in the first place), he says,

… journalism is the only profession, outside academic life, in which I should have felt really confident of my chances.

He wouldn’t say that unless he had something driving him to explain, to persuade, to inform.

However Hardy might have viewed maths blogs, it is near certain that he would not himself have been a blogger. C. P. Snow makes abundantly clear in his Introduction to A Mathematician’s Apology that, first, what Hardy enjoyed was the give and take of conversation, and that he was a good listener as well as a good expositor; and second, that he had no truck with modern gadgets, treating even the telephone with fear and loathing.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
This entry was posted in books, exposition, the Web and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Hardy on blogging

  1. citedcorpse says:

    I kind of see his point: the real pleasure (or cocaine-like rush, depending on one’s sense of adventure) comes from the solving or the figuring out of things. In my experience, many students are prone to spend some time contemplating how to solve certain problems, and then leave the writing up to the penultimate second.

    Of course, the act of writing requires intense reflection, and so is a crucial aspect. It clearly demonstrates one’s level of understanding: even if you don’t like someone’s way of writing, you can almost immediately see if they actually understand what they are expositing. Blogging is just the most public (narcissistic?) way to reveal this.

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