Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Necessary freedom

The mathematician G.H. Hardy – most famous amongst the general public for his having 'discovered' the self-taught prodigy Ramanujan – said that the only other career that might have suited him was journalism.

When I first read this it surprised me, even bearing in mind the fact that journalism in early 20th-century England was very different from journalism today.

Clearly Hardy could write – his short book, A Mathematician's Apology, is a minor classic. But it's very clear from that essay that his identity was inextricably bound up with being a mathematician, and nothing else.

Late in life he attempted suicide, not just because of the general effects of failing health but also – and perhaps mainly – because his mathematical powers had deserted him.

Rather depressingly, he claimed (in his Apology) that most people don't have any significant talent for anything. But "[i]f a man has any genuine talent he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full." Anyone, he asserted, who sets out to justify his existence and his activities has only one real defense. And that is to say, “I do what I do because it is the one and only thing that I can do at all well."

Why did he mention journalism, I wonder? It's particularly puzzling because journalism is so utterly different from mathematics generally – and especially from Hardy's style of doing and thinking about mathematics with its focus on timeless beauty.

This is in addition to the fact that mathematics is normally associated with the sciences. So, naïvely, I would expect a mathematician to say that, had he not pursued mathematics as a career, he might have become a scientist or engineer of some kind, for example.

But Hardy, though he was attracted to biology in his youth, exhibited in his adult life no great interest in or high regard for science, and he had a quite negative attitude to applied science. He prided himself on the fact (as he saw it) that his work had no practical applications.

And he disliked new technologies. He had a telephone installed in his house which he ostentatiously avoided using: it was for the use of any guests who fancied that kind of thing.

By journalism Hardy certainly didn't mean writing about scientific (or mathematical) subjects for a general audience. He meant, presumably, mainstream journalism. And my guess is that he was attracted to it for three basic reasons.

Firstly, he recognized that he had a second talent, a gift for writing – and writing with style and wit and conciseness. (He was famous amongst his friends for his postcards.)

Secondly, though scornful of politicians, he did have an interest in politics and was active in a pacifist organization, the Union of Democratic Control, during World War 1. Significantly, one of the leading and most impressive figures involved in this organization was the French-born journalist E.D. Morel.

And last but not least, I suspect that Hardy saw in the lifestyle associated with journalism (as in the academic lifestyle of the time) a kind of freedom which for a certain kind of person is not just desirable but necessary.