Loving + Hating Mathematics: Challenging the Myths of Mathematical Life

Loving + Hating Mathematics: Challenging the Myths of Mathematical Life

Loving + Hating Mathematics: Challenging the Myths of Mathematical Life

Loving + Hating Mathematics: Challenging the Myths of Mathematical Life


Mathematics is often thought of as the coldest expression of pure reason. But few subjects provoke hotter emotions--and inspire more love and hatred--than mathematics. And although math is frequently idealized as floating above the messiness of human life, its story is nothing if not human; often, it is all too human. Loving and Hating Mathematics is about the hidden human, emotional, and social forces that shape mathematics and affect the experiences of students and mathematicians. Written in a lively, accessible style, and filled with gripping stories and anecdotes, Loving and Hating Mathematics brings home the intense pleasures and pains of mathematical life.

These stories challenge many myths, including the notions that mathematics is a solitary pursuit and a "young man's game," the belief that mathematicians are emotionally different from other people, and even the idea that to be a great mathematician it helps to be a little bit crazy. Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steiner tell stories of lives in math from their very beginnings through old age, including accounts of teaching and mentoring, friendships and rivalries, love affairs and marriages, and the experiences of women and minorities in a field that has traditionally been unfriendly to both. Included here are also stories of people for whom mathematics has been an immense solace during times of crisis, war, and even imprisonment--as well as of those rare individuals driven to insanity and even murder by an obsession with math.

This is a book for anyone who wants to understand why the most rational of human endeavors is at the same time one of the most emotional.


This book, unlike most books on mathematics, is about mathematicians, their extraordinary passion for mathematics and their full complexity of being. We emphasize the social and emotional sides of mathematical life.

In the great and famous works of Euclid and Newton, we find axioms and theorems. the mathematics seems to speak for itself. No first person speaks, no second person is addressed: “Here is Truth, here is Proof, no more need be said.” Going back to the reports of Plato and Descartes, mathematical thinking has been seen as pure reason–a perfect and eternal faculty. the thoughts, feelings, and tribulations of the mathematician are not included.

But it doesn’t take deep reflection to realize that this perfection is a human creation. Mathematics is an artifact created by thinking creatures of flesh and blood. Indeed, this fact has always been known to poets, novelists, and dramatists. Mathematicians, like all people, think socially and emotionally in the categories of their time and place and culture. in any great endeavor, such as the structuring of mathematical knowledge, we bring all of our humanity to the work. Along with reasoning, the work includes the joy of discovery, the struggle with uncertainty, and many other emotions. and it is shaped by social realities, including war, political oppression, sexism, and racism, as they have affected society and mathematicians in different eras.

Today the connection between thought and emotion is a major active field of scientific research. Recently the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and a collaborator wrote, “Modern biology reveals humans to be fundamentally emotional and social . . .

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