Quotable Mathematics

This summer, at MathFest 2024 in Indianapolis, I will be leading a session that combines my three passions:

  1. Quotations
  2. Mathematics
  3. Leading sessions

“Okay, Ben,” you say. “The second of these is obvious, and the third is tautological, but… quotations? Since when have you had a passion for quotations?”

Since high school! Back then, I built my young identity (in today’s dystopia we would say “my personal brand”) around my “Quote of the Week” email newsletter. It featured such timeless witticisms as “I want it to be unclear whether I’m trying to liberate Josh or eliminate his cost” (uttered by a classmate holding a “Free Josh” sign).

Now, I want to bring that same quotable energy to the world of mathematics. I invite you — yes, you! — to submit via this google form.

The quotes may be succinct insights:

Quotable Mathematics

Or mysterious observations:

"Everyone knows what a curve is, until he has studied enough mathematics." -Felix Klein

Or surprising analogies:

"[The Axiom of Choice] is sufficiently troubling that we feel the need to point out every time we use it, a bit like trucks that start beeping when they go into reverse." -Eugenia Cheng

Or lovely speculations:

"I wonder whether mathematicians and fiction writers might be people for whom the lure of alternate worlds is particularly strong. And then I wonder whether this is just a natural consequence of abstract representation itself, that once you start putting words or numbers on paper you are already beginning to piece together a kind of parallel universe..." -Karen Olsson

Or devastating assessments:

"If I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural
curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soulcrushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education." -Paul Lockhart

Or poetic sentiments:

"The sensation of mathematical understanding--of suddenly knowing what's going on, with total certainty, all the way to the bottom--is a special thing, attainable in few if any other places in life. You feel you've reached into the universe's guts and put your hand on the wire." -Jordan Ellenberg

Or the puncturing of myths:

"The modern West believes in genius, but definitions vary widely when they can be come by at all. I think this is so for an essential reason: no normative definition can meet all the needs that are fulfilled by the genius ideal, a vague bundle of rumors and anecdotes with the force of intuition and the air of certainty." -Moon Duchin

Or sci-fi visions:

The planet was absolutely flat. Its enormous gravity had long ago crushed into one uniform level the mountains of its fiery youth—mountains whose mightiest peaks had never exceeded a few meters in height. Yet there was life here, for the surface was covered with a myriad geometrical patterns that crawled and moved and changed their color. It was a world of two dimensions, inhabited by beings who could be no more than a fraction of a centimeter in thickness….

“If those—patterns—are intelligent, the problem of communication will be interesting. I wonder if they have any knowledge of the third dimension?”

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

Or whatever you wish! All quotes (not to mention all quoters and all quotees) are welcome. No length limit; for longer passages I may propose a flattering trim. No worries if you’re not planning to attend MathFest; I’d still love to hear the quote, and I’ll share a compilation in some suitable online format.

To submit a quote, please use this Google Form. Feel free to email me (name of the blog at gmail) with any questions, or to comment below.

I hope to see you in Indianapolis — and even if not, I hope to see you in the Google Form!