Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘G.H. Hardy

The poet and the cricketer

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Perhaps five or even ten percent of men can do something rather well. It is a tiny minority who can do something really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible. If a man has any genuine talent he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full…We have of course to take account of the differences in value between different activities. I would rather be a novelist or a painter than a statesman of similar rank; and there are many roads to fame which most of us would reject as actively pernicious. Yet it is seldom that such differences of value will turn the scale in a man’s choice of a career, which will almost always be dictated by the limitations of his natural abilities. Poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry…If the cricket were a little less supreme, and the poetry better, then the choice might be more difficult: I do not know whether I would rather have been Victor Trumper or Rupert Brooke. It is fortunate that such dilemmas are so seldom.

G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology

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April 8, 2018 at 7:30 am

The beautiful and the serious

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A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas. A painter makes patterns with shapes and colors, a poet with words. A painting may embody an “idea,” but the idea is usually commonplace and unimportant. In poetry, ideas count for a good deal more; but, as Housman insisted, the importance of ideas in poetry is habitually exaggerated: “I cannot satisfy myself that there are any such things as poetical ideas.…Poetry is no the thing said but a way of saying it.”

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed King.

Could lines be better, and could ideas be at once more trite and more false? The poverty of the ideas seems hardly to affect the beauty of the verbal pattern. A mathematician, on the other hand, has no material to work with but ideas, and so his patterns are likely to last longer, since ideas wear less with time than words…

The “seriousness” of a mathematical theorem lies, not in its practical consequences, which are usually negligible, but in the significance of the mathematical ideas which it connects. We may say, roughly, that a mathematical idea is “significant” if it can be connected, in a natural and illuminating way, with a large complex of other mathematical ideas…The beauty of a mathematical theorem depends a great deal on its seriousness, as even in poetry the beauty of a line may depend to some extent on the significance of the ideas which it contains. I quoted two lines of Shakespeare as an example of the sheer beauty of a verbal pattern, but

After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well

seems still more beautiful. The pattern is just as fine, and in this case the ideas have significance and the thesis is sound, so that our emotions are stirred much more deeply. The ideas do matter to the pattern, even in poetry, and much more, naturally, in mathematics; but I must not try to argue the question seriously.

G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology

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June 10, 2017 at 6:57 am

Quote of the Day

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G.H. Hardy

The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colors or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.

G.H. Hardy

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November 15, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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Srinivasa Ramanujan

I remember once going to see [Ramanujan] when he was ill at Putney. I had ridden in taxi cab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one, and that I hoped it was not an unfavorable omen. “No,” he replied, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”

G.H. Hardy, on Srinivasa Ramanujan

(On hearing this story, J.E. Littlewood remarked: “Every positive integer is one of Ramanujan’s personal friends.”)

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2013 at 7:30 am

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