Nerds? or Nuts? Pop Culture Portrayals of Mathematicians

By Wilson, Janelle L.; Latterell, Carmen M. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Nerds? or Nuts? Pop Culture Portrayals of Mathematicians


Wilson, Janelle L., Latterell, Carmen M., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


CARMEN M. LATTERELL [*]

WHEN YOU THINK OF A MATHEMATICIAN, what image comes to mind? Come on, now, be honest! Do you picture a highly intelligent person? Do you picture a nerd? Do you envision a man, or do you see a woman? Popular culture presents some very specific images.

Math Humor

In reading popular comic strips, one often finds mathematics as a topic. More specifically, one often finds an anti-math theme in these comic strips, manifested in the humor generated from portraying those who are good at math as nerds, the reinforcement of gender stereotypes, and, in general, the view of mathematics as a necessary evil. By extension, then, mathematicians get portrayed as geeks, nerds, social misfits. While not admirable, these images seem mild compared to other popular cultural representations of mathematicians. Consider the following two stanzas of Jimmy Buffet's Math Suks [sic]:

If necessity is the mother of invention

Then I'd like to kill the guy who invented this.

The numbers come together in some kind of a third dimension

A regular algebraic bliss ...

Geometry, trigonometry and if that don't tax your brain

There are numbers too big to be named.

Numerical precision is a science with a mission

And I think it's gonna drive me insane

(Buffet, Guth, & Mayer, 1999)

The message: Mathematics drives Jimmy Buffet insane! Well, in fact, this is a common view of mathematics and, by extension, mathematicians. The theme of mathematicians suffering from mental illness prevails in literature and in the movies.

The Mathematician Protagonist

Mathematicians are rarely main characters in literature. But in stories where they do feature as protagonists, they are troubled individuals. [1]

For example, in Uncle Petros & Goldbach's Conjecture. Mathematical Obsession (Doxiadis, 2000), consider the portrayal of Uncle Petros (a mathematician): the black sheep of the family (p.3), one of "life's failures" (p.3), has "no social life of any kind" (p.6), and, yet, a "phenomenal, unprecedented mathematical talent" (p.19). He spent his childhood in virtual isoiation (p.61) and the nephew mentions "I don't need to add that he never married" (p.93). Further, the nephew says: "Great loves are often born of loneliness, and this certainly seems to have been true of my uncle's lifelong affair with numbers" (p.61). Uncle Petros dies from too much mathematics. A minor character in the book, Sammy, also a mathematician, becomes nervous and irritable and acquires "some kind of facial tic" as soon as he goes to graduate school in mathematics (p.156). Another mathematician in the book is portrayed as "a most odd-looking man," "emaciated to an extreme degree," and wearing "extremely thick glasses" (pp.161-162).

A similar message prevails in The Wild Numbers (Schogt, 2000) in which the main character, Isaac, is so obsessed with mathematics that he cannot maintain human relationships. In addition, although he is only 35 years old, he talks of feeling old and depressed. Yet, an anonymous mathematician reviewer of this work remarked: "The mathematicians in this novel are portrayed as real people, not the stereotypical socially inept geniuses often depicted in literature." Well, we find it surprising that this particular character is considered a "real" person, but perhaps in comparison to other portrayals ...

Mefisto (Banville, 1986) features a tragic male mathematician, Gabriel, who describes all situations he encounters in terms of mathematics. In addition, nothing really goes very well for Gabriel. Consider all the following events that happen to him in the story: he has an awful childhood, his mother dies, he ends up burned and scarred over his entire body, his first girlfriend is deaf, and his lover is a drug addict.

Even when the mathematician is not the main character, his (or sometimes her, but not often) life is still rather tragic. …

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