02 June 2008

Richard Stallman: not a mathematician

Something I didn't know: Richard Stallman ("rms") of free software fame took Harvard's Math 55, often called "the hardest math class in the country". (I think I've linked to the Math 55 article before, but I can't find it.) He then took more math courses, and turned out to be quite good at it, but for some reason -- his biographer speculates it was because he shied away from the competitive aspects of mathematics -- he gravitated to computer science.

David Harbater (professor of mathematics at Penn) said of that class:
"only 10 really knew what they were doing." Of that 10, 8 would go on to become future mathematics professors, 1 would go on to teach physics.
"The other one," emphasizes Harbater, "was Richard Stallman."
Daniel Chess also makes an interesting point, about a "brilliant" proof that Stallman came up with his sophomore year:
"That's the thing about mathematics," says Chess. "You don't have to be a first-rank mathematician to recognize first-rate mathematical talent. I could tell I was up there, but I could also tell I wasn't at the first rank. If Richard had chosen to be a mathematician, he would have been a first-rank mathematician."
It's interesting that someone would even say this. Nobody would say that you don't have to be a great chef to recognize great cooking, because it goes without saying.

I learned this from Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software by Sam Williams, which is available online for free.

5 comments:

David said...

It's interesting that someone would even say this.

In the end, everybody wants to play the ponies.

Ben Allen said...

Actually, this is interesting. You don't have to be a great singer to know one. Same goes for artists, athletes, politicians, writers, actors, and many other occupations.

But it does take a certain amount of talent to recognize a great mathematician, even if you aren't one yourself. In fact, I'd put all scientists in this category, as well as chess players, sociologists, literary theorists, and meditators.

It has to do with whether your work is presented to, and judged by, the public, or by those in your specialized field.

unapologetic said...

But it does take a certain amount of talent to recognize a great mathematician, even if you aren't one yourself.

No wonder my friends think I'm smart...

misha said...

I have met Richard Stallman a couple of times and talked to him. He has a very mathematical mind, and could have been a competent mathematician. How good he would have been? We will never know.

Anonymous said...

"It's interesting that someone would even say this."

It's interesting that you would even say this, because it goes without saying.

Thanks for playing, insert a new coin.