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Science on the Farther Shore

Brian Hayes

Birchbark Theorems

Given the recent spate of movies about mathematicians, we should brace ourselves for the big-screen version of the Robert Adrain story. The script is easy to guess: The puffed-up, powdered-wig figures of Gauss and Legendre squabble childishly over credit for a discovery that is actually made by a self-taught genius doing brilliant mathematics deep in the hinterland, scratching theorems onto birchbark with a bit of charcoal. If only it were true. Although Adrain's accomplishments are impressive for their time and place, they do not put him in the first rank of 19th-century mathematicians.

Mathematics and other kinds of science are so intensely social that only the most extraordinary talent could overcome the handicap of isolation. It takes more than a village to raise a scientist. It takes a village full of scientists. As it happens, I am writing these words from just such a village: the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, in Trieste, Italy. The center is named for a distinguished scientist who had to choose in youth between his vocation (physics) and his nation (Pakistan). He went to Cambridge. The center he founded has among its explicit aims to spare others that bitter choice, providing scientists from developing countries opportunities for collaboration without forcing them into emigration. Some 80,000 have visited since 1964.

Technology has also made a difference in the lives of scientists on the farther shores. If Adrain had been able to read e-prints on the arXiv server every morning—and, equally important, if he could have posted his own contributions there—perhaps today we would speak of the Adrainian distribution instead of the Gaussian.

© Brian Hayes

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