On Disdain:
Mathematics, Journalism
and the Irreversible Flow of Time

Science Editorial 10
March 19,2011

Over the last half-century the enterprises of this author have intersected with numerous disciplines and fields. Figuring prominently among them are Mathematics and Journalism. On occasion, when I find myself meeting a mathematician for the first time, or in a group, or (most frequently) at a conference, I will tell them that I’m a journalist, merely for the pleasure I experience as watching the sneers of derision arising from the faces in the crowd.

Some experiences stand out. Around 1996 I obtained, through E-mail exchanges , an invitation to come to Amherst College and address an audience consisting of mathematics students and faculty from the “5 colleges” on my search for, discovery of, and interview with Alexandre Grothendieck in his hermitage in the Vaucluse region of France in the summer of 1988.

Let there be no doubt about it: I was very well treated by the Amherst mathematics department, with coverage of all travel expenses and overnight room and board at the Jeffrey Amherst Inn, and a $50 lecture fee.The audience was large, the response varied, intelligent and, by the end of my talk, enthusiastic.

However:coming up to the podium I explained that the travel expenses for this excursion had been covered by Le Nouvel Observateur, a glossy left-center magazine based in Paris, which made me a journalist.

The chairman of the department was sitting in the front row. At the first mention of the word “journalist” he lowered his head and covered his face with his left hand - from shame! I knew exactly what he was thinking:”What sort of bimbo have I thoughtlessly invited to address our community of sages?”

This opinion was not shared by everyone. though for awhile the students continued to look dubious.Soon, even the department chairman realized that a profitable evening was in store for all, myself included. Applause and sales of my collection of Ferment Press booklets set record highs.

Curiously, more or less the same reaction attended my initial inquiries at the Institute Henri Poincaré in May of 1988. The secretaries had directed me to a researcher who was known to be friendly towards Alexandre – as much as anyone can be – and who might be persuaded to pass me the address of his hiding place.

This gentleman didn’t know what to make of me. He wondered why I was so anxious to meet the great man. He warned me that Grothendieck’s work in Algebraic Geometry was very technical and I probably wouldn’t be able to understand him. So, once again,I explained that I was a journalist researching an article for Le Nouvel Observateur. He dismissed me at once, rudely, with a wave of the hand …(“Of course, I should have known. One of those bums!”)

Nor will I ever forget the cherished response of the mathematician,V.S. Varadarajan, at the University of Chicago, when I tried to interview him during the Chandrasekhar conference of 1996. To reproduce the lines of the article on Ferment Magazine:

"So why do you want to talk to me?" he said, acknowledging my presence with something between an eye-twinkle and conjunctivitis:"You may be hoping, perhaps, that I will impart to you some 'wisdom'?"

Apart from simple snobbery and the ignorance handicaps inherent in any profession of knowledge, this antagonism can be profitably analysed in philosophical terms based on the perceived irreversible flow of time. Journalism is the science of the instant, the moment, the “now”. A good journalist is a historian, in the best sense of the word, who delivers, often under well-nigh impossible conditions, an accurate, faithful and wise rendition of events unfolding in the spectacle passing before his very eyes.

It is altogether wrong-headed to apply the standards (or methods, or objectives) of a mathematician to the activities of a journalist. The mathematical sciences are dedicated to investigation of necessary and eternal truths, the timeless domain of numbers, relations, patterns, structures, and logic (where it overlaps with philosophy) . A mathematician may work for half a century to prove a theorem – the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem required over 350 years – yet the little spark of illumination he brings to our darkness is as immediate, spontaneous and fresh as if his theorem had been proven right at the beginning, 50 years previously.

Therefore it’s not difficult to understand – it comes with the territory one might say – that those persons who diligently mine the imperishable truths of mathematics should exhibit a certain contempt for the "historians of the moment", with their deadlines of weeks, days, hours, who struggle to package and deliver the very perishable leavings,scraps and left-overs from the tables of the quotidian banquet of life, merely to nourish the need for information, or mere curiosity, or idleness, of the readers of newspapers, only to be cast aside after a day or so, perhaps forever.

Those great minds, those Colossi whose legs, like marble pillars, bestride the vistas of eternity, have every right to look with disdain (hopefully with a dram of pity) on the mercenary Peddlers of the Actual, those (literally) “day laborers”,so very like those poor souls one finds on city streets, plastic sack slung over their shoulder, collecting old soda cans from trash baskets, redeemable at a nickel apiece.

Yet the real question is this: do those worthy souls (whose eyes have perhaps been blinded by gazing too fixedly at the Sun of Eternal Truth) possess the ability themselves to record – in the very thick of its multiple interacting fields of forces –the events of a natural catastrophe, or a battle, or a political demonstration – or even something so thoroughly planned as an inauguration or royal wedding – those essential details that will allow thousands of readers to understand what happens, or is still happening,or allow them to feel, however briefly, that they themselves are there, being carried along in the relentless flood of living experience?


From Reuben Hersh, March 19:

Roy, I can't let this go without a rejoinder.

Media people come to us for material. They get what they want by telling us whatever they think we want to hear, then once they get what they want they will probably just toss it into the garbage. If in fact something is published or broadcast using the information they got from us, it is almost surely confused and misleading, and they certainly will not bother to let us detect their errors in advance, regardless of any promises they made to the contrary, while they were trying to be in our good graces before they finished extracting whatever "material" they thought they might possibly publish or broadcast.

One or two experiences with media people are enough, at least for me, to leave a permanent bad taste and mistrust. Don't say “journalist”, say “media people”. That is what they are.

Of course, the exceptions, the honest, decent media people are rare and precious!! My esteem for these rarities knows no bounds.

My reply, March 20:

Right, Reuben:

This reflects my experience with Ken Ribet, one of the mathematicians who provided the crucial steps leading to Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. In 1995 I was covering the conference at Boston University in August 1995 that celebrated the final corrected proof of Wiles’ theorem by Richard Taylor. The “media vehicle” was a very transient On-Line magazine known as "The Tangled Web".

During the conference I tried to interview Kenneth Ribet. He regarded me with aversion "Well sir", he said, (more or less) "I'm burned out on journalists, so let's forget about it, shall we?"

Later, when I met him in U C Berkeley in 1996, he recognized his mistake. He went out of his way to apologize, asking me how my reports were doing, and so forth. As a curious aside, it was the year when he was organizing the Thursday afternoon math colloquia in Evans Hall. Because his emphasis was on Applied Mathematics, not many of the resident researchers attended them. Some of them certainly thought the subject beneath them.

So there is wrong on both sides. Perhaps what really interests me in making this analysis are the opposing "philosophies of time" one finds in the two professions.

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