Software Musings

Conversation Starter

Posted on: 24/09/2006

Next time you are at a party of mathematical philosophers and the conversation palls, here’s a trivia question to bring it back to life: “Which 20th century work of literature has a mathematical philosopher as a character?”

When the bewildered faces all turn on you, give them this quotation direct from the work in question:

At the time that Kate first met him, Monty appeared to have had a high reputation as a philosopher—to be precise, as a researcher in mathematical logic. What he did, or was trying to do, was entirely incomprehensible to Humphrey, and must have been so to Kate. So far as Humphrey could understand from academic friends, Monty had an ambition to lay down the foundations of mathematics from the inside, proving them to be a man-made construction. It was a meglomaniac ambition, said one of the academics….Monty had the aura of a genius, and was ready to be adored.

I like the dig in the last sentence; which of us is not ready to be adored? Anyway, Kate stays faithful to her Dr Dryasdust (or, more pertinently, Dorothea’s Dr Casaubon) husband for almost two-thirds of the book before jumping into bed with the hero, Humphrey. The implication is that, had Monty been something other than a mathematical philosopher, then this bed swapping would have been dishonorable but, since Monty probably wouldn’t notice anyway, being absorbed in his mathematical logic, it’s OK in this case. As Browning wrote, grammarians, and presumably by extension logicians, are “dead from the waist down”.

This raises the whole question over which I like to pause from time to time: which professions are sufficiently interesting to provide heroes for books? When I was a lot younger there was a vogue for stories about vets and, if there’s one thing to be said for mathematical philosophy, it is that it doesn’t involve the inside of horses.

Doctors have always been a popular source of heroes but not, funnily enough, chiropodists (unless I’ve missed a whole genre of literature). Lawyers are perhaps the most puzzling although most of my dealings with lawyers are with patent lawyers and perhaps I’m biased.

So, where are the books about software programmers and non-cuckolded mathematical philosophers? I can certainly imagine a programmer striding manfully (or womanfully, I don’t mind) across the landscape saving companies from ruin at the last moment, the product already on shipping dock, by alerting directors to the illegal use of GPLed code. This is the stuff that dreams are made on.

But what about poor, cuckolded Monty? He appears in A Coat of Varnish, a 1979 whodunnit (and howdidhegetawaywithdoingit) by C.P., Baron, Snow. One of my favourite Snow quotations is “When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.” So let’s get that novel underway.


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September 2006
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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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