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No need to apologize for this
on 27 November 2008
"Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds." Already, in the first paragraph, G. H. Hardy is deploring the task of writing about mathematics in his characteristically forthright fashion. It's just as well that by the time we begin the Apology we have been softened up by C. P. Snow's excellent introduction and potted biography. Clearly, this first-rate book has attracted an altogether better class of reviewer, the self-effacing type not given to hissy fits on being reminded of their place in the intellectual pantheon.
"I had of course found at school, as every future mathematician does, that I could often do things much better than my teachers". Hardy's later achievements and his matter-of-fact style ensure that this is neither preening vanity nor a pompous boast. A professional mathematician might also agree that the "function of a mathematician is to do something" and not to talk about it. Mathematics as an active pursuit, being cleverer than your maths teacher - these count as revelations to ordinary mortals, even those of us who weren't too bad at maths. Then, and before any unsuspecting non-mathematician can run for cover, Hardy sets about proving "two of the famous theorems of Greek mathematics". There is really nothing to be scared of, even for the most equation-phobic humanities graduate. It's the ideas and the arguments that link them that matter, and they are not difficult to follow. In tracing the steps of Euclid and Pythagoras we are tracing patterns of thought that have lasted two thousand years, and we too can directly appreciate their beauty, and see for ourselves in a small way that a "mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns."
Hardy does not take kindly to the commonplace idea "that an academic career is one sought mainly by cautious and unambitious persons who care primarily for comfort and security." While he is, unsurprisingly, motivated by "intellectual curiosity" and a "desire to know the truth", he also admits to "professional pride", "ambition" and a "desire for reputation". A lesser mind might have been tempted to feign guilt over such worldly traits, but Hardy has only a good word for ambition, the "noble passion". And his own noblest ambition? That "of leaving behind... something of permanent value". No dreams of heavenly bliss for this atheist.
Just when you might be thinking that all this talk of reputation and ambition must arise from an insufferable self-centredness, he declares that much of his best work was done in collaboration with two other mathematicians, Littlewood and Ramanujan, from very different backgrounds. Hardy's recognition of the unknown Indian was not inevitable: two other eminent Englishmen had returned the manuscripts without comment, on the assumption that Ramanujan was a crank. That too was Hardy's first impression, but he soon changed his mind and saw in Ramanujan a brilliant if untutored mathematical mind. It is a remarkable story by any standards, and has been recently staged as "A Disappearing Number" - a brilliant production in which a rather battered copy of this very edition gets a turn in the limelight.
What was a "melancholy experience" for Hardy (writing about mathematics) provides a rewarding experience for us. Graham Greene considered this the best account of what it is like to be a creative artist. I don't know if Greene is right, or if Hardy is right in his belief "that mathematical reality lies outside us," waiting to be discovered. I defer to their judgements but can better appreciate their conclusions after reading this book. C. P. Snow describes Hardy's "mocking horror of pretentiousness, self-righteous indignation, and the whole stately pantechnicon of the hypocritical virtues." More intriguing, given Hardy's hatred of God and all the pious nonsense carried out in God's name, and given that the spiritual side of human nature has been unthinkingly yoked to religious mumbo jumbo for far too long, is Snow's description of Hardy "as spiritually delicate" and "spiritually candid as few men are".
The dominant sense of "apology" implies a fault for which contrition is being expressed. Hardy's Apology is no craven exercise in self-abasement but a serious and vigorous justification of the intellectual and creative life, whether led by a mathematician or anyone else.