Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Advent calendar #14: From Hilbert with Sympathy

Hilbert had a student who one day presented him with a paper purporting to prove the Riemann hypothesis. Hilbert studied the paper carefully and was really impressed by the depth of the argument; but unfortunately he found an error in it which even he could not eliminate. The following year the student died. Hilbert asked the grieving parents if he might be permitted to make a funeral oration. While the student's relatives and friends were weeping beside the grave in the rain, Hilbert came forward. He began by saying what a tragedy it was that such a gifted young man had died before he had an opportunity to show the world what he could accomplish. But, he continued, in spite of the fact that this young man's proof of the Riemann hypothesis contained an error, it was still possible that some day a proof of the famous problem would be obtained along the lines which the deceased had indicated. "In fact," he continued with enthusiasm, standing there in the rain by the dead student's grave, "let us consider a function of one complex variable..."

Quoted from "Hilbert" by Constance Reid, where it is noted that this story is "perhaps apocryphal."


  1. lol!!! Mathematicians! Math is pretty much all they think about.

    Well it is the sexiest of disciplines so why wouldn't they?

    Care to share your own thoughts in that regard Bee that may have led to your own switching of majors from Math to Physics?

  2. Hi Steven,

    Well, it's a story I've told before. The brief summary is that I am too reality-bound for mathematics. I want to learn something about the world, and I hope of course that others learn something about the world from to my contribution. Mathematics is as much an art as it is a science, but it's an art that (unfortunately) few people can really appreciate and not everything mathematical is relevant to understand the world. My reality-boundedness is also reflected in that part of the story where the department of physics offered me a job, whereas the mathematicians were broke. To come back to your question, I actually found the mathematicians to have much better manners and to be less aggressive than their physics colleagues on the other side of the building, but if I was sensitive to sexist jokes I would have left the field long ago. Academics of all disciplines are very preoccupied by their work which can make conversations somewhat repetitive (no worse conversation partner than an academic who is chewing on a problem), but then I'm guilty of that too. Best,


  3. Fix the problem, mourn the dead, and get on with the job. If god loves the poor, crippled, and stupid, then god can bloody well pay for them or take them back. My wallet is broken and my patience is exhausted.

  4. Death is more fundamental than Mathematics.

    Hilbert should have known better...


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