Quotation for the week: Weil

Mathematicians, and scientists more generally, sometimes seem obsessed with showing off, awarding each other prizes, and generally fretting about who’s “better” than whom. It was presumably a close view of such activity that provoked the French philosopher, activist and mystic Simone Weil to this pointed assessment:

La science ne présente que trois intérêts : 1ème les applications techniques; 2ème jeu d’échecs; 3ème chemin vers Dieu. (Le jeu d’échecs est agrémenté de concours, prix et médailles.)

Science offers only three points of interest: 1. technical applications; 2. a game of chess; 3. a way to God. (The chess game is embellished with competitions, prizes and medals.)

La pesanteur et la grâce, L’intelligence et la grâce (published posthumously, 1947)

This wasn’t the view of a complete outsider: Simone Weil’s brother André was a first-class mathematician by any standard, and among the founders of the Bourbaki group. His response to the culture of competition was to list only a single honour in his official biography: “Member, Poldavian Academy of Science and Letters”. (Poldavia was a fictional country, homeland of the equally fictional Bourbaki.)

It’s also interesting that one of the great figures of twentieth-century mathematics, Alexandre Grothendieck, should have combined the mathematical formalism of an André with the mysticism of a Simone. A far cry from a mere game of chess…


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