13 August 2014

Mathematics & Beauty

As The Guardian reports Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian born mathematician now teaching at Stanford is the first woman to ever win the Fields Medal. This is a milestone for the discipline, obviously. But it is an opportunity to underscore a point Hilary Putnam makes in The Collapse of the Fact Value Dichotomy and Other Essays (Harvard UP, 2004), namely that, despite popular misconceptions, scientific inquiry is shot through with values and that the latter is not a homogenous category. Consider what Mirzakhani says in this 2008 interview:
"I don’t think that everyone should become a mathematician, but I do believe that many students don’t give mathematics a real chance. I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers."
Beauty, of course, is an aesthetic value. And here Mirzakhani seems to be making it a central characteristic of mathematics and an animating reason for her intellectual pursuits.

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