Home > Life, Math, Obituary > Line of the Week

Line of the Week

[Jeff Weeks]

It’s tough to compete with Missouri representative Todd Akin, who in the last week has given us what may be the line of the year. But let’s put politics aside — along with its concomitant lies, ignorance, and stupidity — and turn instead to mathematics. Bill Thurston, one of the great mathematicians of our time, died on Tuesday, way too young, at 65.

The NYT obituary does a passable job of conveying some sense of his importance, though it borders on the bizarre to learn that “Thurston was among a very rarefied group in his field that thinks deep theoretical thoughts with no particular practical application, a luxury he reveled in.” Just about everyone I spend my days with thinks theoretical thoughts with no particular practical application. I never thought we’re part of a rarefied group. But maybe the point is that our thoughts aren’t deep. In my case, I won’t argue.

The line of the week? It’s a remark by Thurston’s son Dylan:

Dylan Thurston, also a mathematician, said that despite working in a realm of rather cold abstractions, his father was personally very warm.

I picture Dylan saying this with a wink. We mathematicians don’t live in a realm of cold abstraction. Our abstractions are warm and fuzzy, good company in all circumstances. How warm we are is another matter.

——-

For more on Thurston’s work, see the short note by Evelyn Lamb at Scientific American.

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Categories: Life, Math, Obituary
  1. September 4, 2012 at 1:37 PM

    I appreciate your remarks about Bill who did quite a bit to give me confidence in mathematics. However, I respectfully disagree with your interpretation of standard journalistic conventions regarding the quoting of indirect speech. You seem to be interpreting the New York Times article as if it said “Dylan Thurston, also a mathematician said ‘Despite working in a realm of rather cold abstractions, my father was personally very warm.’ ”

    However, the article said nothing at all like this. The quote is indirect and it makes two claims: 1) Dylan said that Bill’s work is pure mathematics, and is “abstract”; 2) Dylan said that his father was personally very warm.

    *****The linking of the above two concepts should be attributed to the obituary writer, and not to Dylan.***** That is the difference between direct and indirect speech. The indirect form is chosen (presumably intentionally) to give the writer more licence to draw inferences and make interpretations that go well beyond the scope of what the interviewee intended.

    From what I’ve experienced of Dylan, I don’t imagine him saying anything like your “line of the week” with a “wink”. However, I haven’t asked him about it.

    Paul Epstein

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