25 July 2008

Mathematicians in politics?

Quite some time ago, the folks at 360 asked if there have been heads of state who were by training mathematicians. This is really two questions in one: people who were trained as mathematicians, and people who had a mathematical career before going into politics.

The first question doesn't seem that interesting, because it seems to include cases in which Politician X majored in math as an undergrad, then went to law school, became a lawyer, and then entered politics from the law, as so many do. That's not the question I want to answer.

For the second question, a bit of clicking around turns up this list, which inclues Alberto Fujimori (president of Peru), Paul Painlevé (prime minister of France), and Eamon de Valera (president of Ireland). Painlevé in particular made a name for himself as a mathematician; the other two appear to have at least taught it in some capacity at some point.

I had thought that Henri Poincaré had been in politics, but it appears that I was confusing him with his cousin Raymond. Borel served in the French National Assembly. I haven't done any sort of systematic sampling, but it seems like mathematician-politicians are particularly prevalent in France, that wonderful country where they name streets after mathematicians. (Here in the United States, for example in my native city of Philadelphia, we name streets after mathematical objects, namely the positive integers.)

One interesting close call is Einstein. The story has it that he was offered the presidency of Israel in 1952. Of course Einstein was a physicist, but given the title of this blog I feel I can mention him.

18 comments:

topologicalmusings said...

Here in the United States, for example in my native city of Philadelphia, we name streets after mathematical objects, namely the positive integers.

That was very funny! :D You have a very good sense of humor!

Anonymous said...

Brentano become President of the Republic of Czechoslovakia(from 1918 to 1935),
Russel was active in politics in later years.
and of course Leibniz, Aristotle, ...

Anonymous said...

He's not a head of state, though many thought he'd become one and perhaps he still will, but Ahmed Chalabi earned a Ph.D in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1969. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmed_Chalabi

Jesse Johnson said...

I don't know if this counts, but Alexander Lubotzky was a member of the Knesset (Israel's parliment) for a year or two while he was still teaching.

Froggie said...

I'd hate to start any mathematician / physicist trash-talking, but the NYT had an amusing article a couple months ago about the three physicists currently in Congress.

unapologetic said...

jesse: "was"? Has he stopped since spring 2007 when I saw him giving lectures at Yale?

Oh, and anonymous 1:49 scooped me on Chalabi.

Daniel Andrés said...

In Colombia the best majors of the two more impotant cities (Bogotá and Medellín) were mathematicians and professors of the most representative universities in the country: Sergio Fajardo (Medellín) and Antanas Maockus (Bogotá).

BTW, Sergio Fajardo is also a probabilist.

Suresh said...

In the Chalabi category of 'mathematicians who, thank goodness, did NOT become heads of state' is Boris Berezovsky, Russian oligarch and former mathematician who was especially close to the top during the Yeltsin years.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Berezovsky

Isabel Lugo said...

anon 1:49,

I think somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that about Chalabi, but I had chosen to forget it.

Hany M. El-Hosseiny said...

Emile Borel was not only member of the French National Assembly, but was also minister of Marine in 1925.
Faustin Touadera (the actual prime minister of the Central African Republic) holds a Ph. D. in Mathematics and has taught Mathematics at the University of Bangui for many years.

Anonymous said...

Hari Seldon was a professor at Streeling University ;-)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hari_Seldon

Kurt Osis said...

Thanks, people who pointed me to "Math for the Million" in the comments on a previous post. I just ordered it, I think I'll start with Courant and Robbins. "What Is Mathematics?"

In his 2001 review of What is Mathematics, Brian E. Blank sums up my feelings exactly, "I was aware that geometry derived from Thales, Pythagoras, and Euclid. Whether or not any geometric theorems were discovered after Euclid I could not say. That algebra and trigonometry were the results of conscious development would no more have occurred to me than the idea that the English language was the creation of dedicated professional linguists."


How anyone ever learned anything before wikipedia and amazon.com I will never know... i suppose they just used google....

misha said...

...France, that wonderful country... Vladimir Arnold is a bit more skeptical about the state of affairs in French mathematics. The scarcity of mathematicians in politics is probably a blessing in disguise, because, while having more capacity to understand some finer points in economics and other quantitative matters, professional mathematicians are notoriously short of the common sense, that elusive quality, which is so important in politics.

misha said...

Kurt, you may enjoy the article I mentioned in my previous comment, the author addresses exactly the problem with math education that bothered you so much.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to have disturbed your choice to forget about Chalabi. --anon 1:49

GMH said...

Joseph Fourier, as in Fourier analysis, was a French "prefect" from 1801 to 1815, a position roughly equivalent to being the Governer of an American State, albeit appointed not elected. He is generally regarded as having been very successful at the job.

Laplace was also appointed to an even more senior role (something like Minister of the Interior), but dismissed by Napoleon after a few months with the observation that he brought the "concept of the infinitely small" into public administration.

Anonymous said...

Ismael Alazhary, first head of the Republic of Sudan after its independence from Britain in 1956, was a professor of Mathematics in the University of Khartoum at least for some time before being a full time politician.

Rodrigo said...

As Daniel Andrés pointed before, two Colombian politicians (Sergio Fajardo and Antanas Mockus)are mathematicians. They are now running for presidency (Fajardo as VP), and have gained a fighting chance after they had been considered utopic.