Friday, August 27, 2010

The neighborhood of mathematicians

Siobhan mentioned a neighborhood she'd known once where the streets were named, not for trees, but for mathematicians. But the only street names she could think of were Euclid and Pascal. We then discussed what other mathematicians could have been used, and how few mathematicians there are whose names would be recognizable by the general public. We added to that list only Newton, Pythagoras, and maybe Euler, Möbius, and Fermat. We should also have come up with Archimedes but it didn't occur to me at the time. We wondered whether Descartes should be on the list -- or, for that matter, how much Pascal really deserves to be there.

If you were going to make a neighborhood with, say, ten streets, and name them for mathematicians, it seems like you'd get very different lists if you wanted to pick names people would know, or pick people who really deserved to be there. Poincaré, Goedel, Riemann, Mandelbrot, Gauss, Cantor, and Lagrange should probably be there, and I've no doubt there are dozens of others and one could have a vigorous argument in the math department of any university (an argument that I'm sure has happened many times). But the average person probably hasn't heard of any of those, or if they have, they wouldn't know they were mathematicians. Besides, some of the most recognizable names, like Newton, are probably better known for other things.

I guess if mathematics is an abstruse field to most people, the history of mathematics is thus doubly abstruse (or perhaps I should say abstruse2). So if you're going to name a neighborhood that way, why bother to try to make it recognizable? Make it an in-joke. To most people, "Fermat Avenue" and "Poincaré Place" would just seem like street names of no particular significance, and the theme would never occur to them. In fact, go farther: make Möbius Way a loop road, Goedel Drive a cul-de-sac, and use Mandelbrot Boulevard a big central byway which has smaller roads off of it that are the same layout as it, and have smaller roads off them that have the same layout too.

I think if I were a city planner, my city would be dreadfully boring to almost everyone, but would make one person in a thousand cackle madly. I'll have to make sure to include an asylum in my city plans.

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