I don’t know which species is worse…

Last time I mentioned that the distinction made between ‘basic research’ and ‘applied research’ is a silly one. Now I wish to make the same point about the demarcation between ‘pure mathematics’ and ‘applied mathematics’.

One book that gets far too much air time is GH Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology.

People may well rave about it; I could never see the fuss. Hardy is clearly cossetted in his own version of reality, and, at times talks with embarrassing naivety (does that have an accent, or one o’them funky \i’s in Latex? Probably something!). The fact that reasonable people think he is talking sense is baffling: but only Ripley can explain my feelings.

He takes pride in the fact that ‘mathematics’ (of course, with classic snobbery, ‘mathematics’ means ‘pure mathematics’) has no uses. Ignoring the fact that it ain’t even true, why should this mean anything? It’s not an argument for or against mathematics. But you can’t tell the fan club, who whoop and holler saying ‘Right you are, guv’nor,’ (since surely, whooping and hollering evokes the inner Cockney in us all). They can carry on, I guess, since they don’t need me.

I suppose there could be a distinction made, at least on paper: pure mathematics generates problems and then solves them for the kick of it, but applied mathematics translates real world stuff into problems and then tries to solve these. Fine, that’ll do I guess. But do we need this distinction? How does it help? I fancy the distinction is kept there, soley by pure mathematicians, since ‘pure’ sounds good, and we can all slap each other on the back and say that ‘applied’ is for the filthy, bloodsucking corporate types. Why would we ever sully ourselves with applications to the real world? That would go against Hardy — I really wanted to put in a reference to `The Mayor of Casterbridge’ (the only Hardy novel I ever read), but I couldn’t make the reference work. Is there anything I can do?

If the branches of mathematics were called ‘blue mathematics’ and ‘green mathematics’ because of some wacky joke made by Lagrange and friends, then I doubt those in one camp would be keen reminding all and sundry of the distinction. Of course, they would be keen to remind people of where their own team is, and why they are the best, but perhaps a bit less vociferously if the branch names were not loaded terms.

I hope to continue this distinction between subject areas next time, looking at the differences between mathematics and lab-based scientists. Of course, there are too many good Private Hudson quotes to fit into one article: game over!

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