This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
Privatdozent is an indulgence in early/mid-20th-century mathematics, physics and economics.
What compelled you to write about the history of mathematics and physics? What are you hoping readers get out of it?
I get obsessed with things. During my undergraduate years I fell absolutely in love with the book A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar. I listened to the unabridged audiobook more or less on a loop every time I walked anywhere. I especially love the first part about Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study in the 1930s, the origins of game theory, John von Neumann, MIT in the early 1950s, Norbert Wiener, the RAND Corporation, and Nash’s years as a graduate and postgraduate student. Although I was majoring in industrial design at the time, that book got me into math and motivated me to get a second degree. It was truly life-changing for me.
This was about 10 years ago. Ever since, I’ve always searched for other books to scratch the same itch, but there aren’t that many around. So about two years ago, I began researching and writing about these topics myself. My hope, I guess, is that my readers derive even a fraction of the pleasure from Privatdozent as I did from A Beautiful Mind.
How do you decide what to write about, and where do you hope to take the publication in the future?
I’m sure it’s a cliché, but stories tend to find me rather than the other way around. My routine is to get up as early as possible and start reading. If I manage to get into that rare, right state of mind, I’ll start editing and adding information based on things I remember, former essays I’ve written, books, and research papers. I have a decent collection of books to draw from at home and often find myself wandering around the math section of the university library (I’m an associate professor by day).
Earlier this year I also began collecting original data. I’ve been lucky enough to get to interview the descendants of some of the characters I write about, who actually remember what they were like. Over time, the content from these conversations will find its way to the newsletter. I will also continue to invest in audio editions of my essays, published as The Privatdozent Podcast, read by Steve King.
Writings on the history of mathematics and physics tend to be about quirky people … As far as I can gather, genius and eccentricity do indeed often go hand in hand.
What themes do you see come up again and again when writing about this field of history?
Albert Einstein once wrote of quantum physicist Paul Dirac, “This balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful.” That is to say, writings on the history of mathematics and physics tend to be about quirky people. My essays are no exception. As far as I can gather, genius and eccentricity do indeed often go hand in hand.
Everyone knows that Nash was schizophrenic. He is, however, far from the only brilliant mathematician/physicist who struggled with mental issues. Georg Cantor was in and out of insane asylums for most of his life. As was Gödel, who eventually died from self-starvation due to “personality disturbances,” at 29 kilograms (64 pounds), in 1978. Ramanujan died from malnutrition. Turing committed suicide, as did Boltzmann. Wiener suffered from extensive periods of depression, as did Erdős, who took amphetamines for a large part of his life. Dirac was autistic, at times incommunicado. After being awarded the Fields Medal (mathematics’ highest honor), Alexander Grothendieck abruptly resigned his professorship and disappeared into the French Pyrenees, practically never heard from again. Gregori Perelman refused to accept his Fields Medal, as well as the $1 million Clay Millennium Prize that came with it. He now reportedly lives with his mother in Moscow.
In his philosophical essay On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill wrote that “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which is contained.”
I guess there is something about the mechanics of abstract endeavors that separates pure mathematics and theoretical physics from other disciplines. I tend to liken it to music, art or poetry more so than engineering, chemistry or biology.
Who have you most enjoyed writing about so far, and why?
I’m endlessly fascinated with Gödel. As I’ve discovered, I’m not alone – my story Kurt Gödel’s Brilliant Madness has been read more than 50,000 times. Writing that essay, which took a few weeks, I feel like I really came to know him. From my perspective, the essay is about how complicated brilliant people can be. Moreover, it’s about how important the people around them are, both for their creativity and general well-being. Gödel had at least four patrons in his life: his wife Adele, John von Neumann, Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern. Adele, his only love, cared for him when he was sick and tolerated his many quirks. Reading about their life together, you get the sense that she really knew and accepted him for who he was. Same for the other three.
Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?
Robert Wright is probably my favorite writer. His Nonzero Newsletter always provides interesting perspectives on contemporary issues – typically related to politics, foreign policy, and evolutionary psychology.