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Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians
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Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians

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This book traces the history of the MIT Department of Mathematics one of the most important mathematics departments in the world through candid, in-depth, lively conversations with a select and diverse group of its senior members. The process reveals much about the motivation, path, and impact of research mathematicians in a society that owes so much to this little ...more
Paperback, 441 pages
Published April 15th 2010 by AK Peters (first published January 3rd 2009)
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“... the development of mathematics, for the sciences and for everybody else, does not often come from pure math. It came from the physicists, engineers, and applied mathematicians. The physicists were on to many ideas which couldn’t be proved, but which they knew to be right, long before the pure mathematicians sanctified it with their seal of approval. Fourier series, Laplace transforms, and delta functions are a few examples where waiting for a rigorous proof of procedure would have stifled progress for a hundred years. The quest for rigor too often meant rigor mortis. The physicists used delta functions early on, but this wasn’t really part of mathematics until the theory of distributions was invoked to make it all rigorous and pure. That was a century later! Scientists and engineers don’t wait for that: they develop what they need when they need it. Of necessity, they invent all sorts of approximate, ad hoc methods: perturbation theory, singular perturbation theory, renormalization, numerical calculations and methods, Fourier analysis, etc. The mathematics that went into this all came from the applied side, from the scientists who wanted to understand physical phenomena. [...] So much of mathematics originates from applications and scientific phenomena. But we have nature as the final arbiter. Does a result agree with experiment? If it doesn’t agree with experiment, something is wrong.” 0 likes
“Of course, the annals of MIT are full of Wiener stories, some of which are probably true. But nobody knows which ones, I think. My favorite one was where he met the graduate student on the stairs there in Building 2, on the flight of stairs, and he stopped midway to talk to the graduate student for a minute. When he got through, he said to the kid, “Which way was I going when you met me?”
“You were going up.”
“Oh, good. Then I’ve had lunch.”
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