Fate and Madness

Pay attention

So, yeah, David Hume wrote something that I discovered many years ago and have more than once quoted in my own rambling prose. In particular:

“Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.”

I haven’t a clue who he was writing about, but I’m guessing his circle of acquaintances included many contemporary intellectuals, and many of these would have been young and driven; firebrands. Their eager neediness to have their groundbreaking discoveries recognized by a viscously entrenched body of mainstream luminaries would have driven many close to or beyond madness. Hume evidently found such behavior annoying, and in response wrote what he wrote. The tl;dr version is: “Cut it out.”

We’ll never know the names of the majority of such roadkill, and it isn’t only failing to achieve recognition that drives these individuals to the brink and beyond. The “abstruse thought and profound researches” alone can, even if recognized, eat at the soul and leave the mind gasping for air (I do love my metaphors).

The really good – if rather too dramatic – BBC series, Dangerous Knowledge, focuses on four well-known researchers in mathematics and physics: Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing. All ended their lives deeply disturbed. Cantor and Boltzmann confronted the dual foes of deep obsessive thinking, and a resistant mainstream. Turing’s case is somewhat unique, and his inclusion doubtless had much to do with his British nationality, a nationality that contributed greatly to his downfall. Gödel, on the other hand, was showered with acclaim throughout most of his life, but in the end he starved himself to death, subject to profound paranoia.

PW recently linked to an excellent article about the life and work of Alexander Grothendieck. Who?

In the early 1970s, as a graduate student in mathematics, I had heard his name, but knew very little about him. A fellow graduate student, who I remember meeting at least once, would eventually become his nth wife, but I was – and am – largely clueless as to what he did to achieve international acclaim. But I am including him in this blog because of his life, and how it ended. The essay begins:

“Alexander Grothendieck started out as the greatest mathematician of the Twentieth Century, and ended up as a destitute hermit, lost in a labyrinth of ideas, dreams and maybe delusions that we still haven’t been able to decipher.”

And near the end:

“In June of 1990, Grothendieck stopped eating for 45 days. He was found by one of his children in a semicomatose state and subject to violent hallucinations, afraid for his life. Miraculously Grothendieck, who was 62 years old, survived without any physical consequences.”

Shortly after that he disappeared.

“The great mathematician, who had let his beard grow long and almost always wore a strange arab-style caftan, had taken refuge in a tiny village at the foot of the Pyrenees, where no one knew him. He lived there for 23 years, in a shabby abandoned farm, in total isolation. The village’s 200 inhabitants, who didn’t know who he was, soon got used to his presence, respecting his privacy. He received very few visits, all of them from the few people who knew about his new residence, and soon not even from them.”

Because of his parents, his life was far from uneventful; it was fraught. The weight of that life, on top of the heavier weight of his immersion into extremely abstruse thought, where no one had gone before, well, yeah, so there it is.

I’m not done, so listen up

My favorite book on 20th century theoretical physics, is The Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition, and Science, by Sheilla Jones. If you’re suffering from the delusion that the founders of quantum mechanics lived happy adventurous lives – a kind of nerd Ibiza – and not prone to suicidal thoughts, when not actually committing suicide, or being institutionalized due to mental and emotional burnout, then this is the book for you.

Still, they had each other, and Solvay was not Ibiza, but it was not nothing. People like Grothendieck, Cantor and Gödel – or such is my impression – produced their groundbreaking work alone. They interacted with others, even teaching, but their intellectual labors were solitary. That kind of thing takes its toll.

I became interested in this whole genre when, after 40 years of solitary work in mathematics and physics, I realized I was teetering very close to the edge of what my mind could endure. And I had no interest in adding myself to the many famous, and much more numerous nameless, theorists who teetered off their edges. So I quit. I briefly went back to it, at Cohl Furey’s urging, but this did not end well:

“And anyway, I can’t do the work anymore. I mentioned somewhere–possibly in another book–that I told Cohl I found it psychologically difficult to work on my ideas in mathematical physics. She expressed doubts, and suggested that that would be too bad. Prodded by her reaction, I started thinking about a way of combining some ideas I’d had in pure mathematics with notions I’d had in physics. Very quickly I had a result I found rather exciting. I pursued it rabidly for a couple of weeks, and quit finally when I realized I was getting close to a mental breakdown. Such work seldom gives your brain any rest, even when asleep. I simply could not do it. I am used up.”

The great mass of conventional theorists are to all extents and purposes a book club, meeting periodically over tea to discuss arcana. I approve. But there will always be some few who look too deeply into the abyss. My advice to them: if you notice the abyss looking back into you, avert your gaze. This advice will not be heeded.