[2 February 2010]
Lately I’ve been spending some time of an evening reading E. T. Bell’s classic collection of biographies of mathematicians: Men of Mathematics (1937; rpt. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985). (As the title suggests, Bell is thoroughly pre-feminist; a collection called Women of Mathematics has been published more recently, which may be intended as a kind of pendant to Bell, though sadly it’s nowhere like as much fun to read; its authors are for the most part better historians and much less opinionated.) And something rather puzzling caught my eye the other evening.
Bell writes (p. 357 of the Simon and Schuster paperback reprint) in his sketch of the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton:
So long as there is a shred of mystery attached to any concept that concept is not mathematical.
Granted, Bell was probably tired of having to tell generations of incredulous undergraduates that there is nothing especially imaginary about imaginary numbers; one might grow peevish on the subject over the years. But still: did Bell seriously believe that the natural numbers (say) are not mysterious?
Can anyone not dead to all sense of wonder contemplate the commutative property of integer addition without feeling themselves to be in the presence of mystery?