Mathematics in Wartime


THE EDITOR asked me at the beginning of term to write an article for Eureka, and I felt that I ought to accept the invitation; but all the subjects which he suggested seemed to me at the time quite impossible. "My views about the Tripos" - I have never really been much interested in the Tripos since I was an undergraduate, and I am less interested in it now than ever before. "My reminiscences of Cambridge" - surely I have not yet come to that. Or, as he put it, "something more topical, something about mathematics and the war" - and that seemed to me the most impossible subject of all. I seemed to have nothing at all to say about the functions of mathematics in war, except that they filled me with intellectual contempt and moral disgust.

I have changed my mind on second thoughts, and I select the subject which seemed to me originally the worst. Mathematics, even my sort of mathematics, has its "uses" in war-time, and I suppose that I ought to have something to say about them; and if my opinions are incoherent or controversial, then perhaps so much the better, since other mathematicians may be led to reply.

I had better say at once that by "mathematics" I mean real mathematics, the mathematics of Fermat and Euler and Gauss and Abel, and not the stuff which passes for mathematics in an engineering laboratory. I am not thinking only of "pure" mathematics (though that is naturally my first concern); I count Maxwell and Einstein and Eddington and Dirac among "real" mathematicians. I am including the whole body of mathematical knowledge which has permanent aesthetic value, as for example, the best Greek mathematics has, the mathematics which is eternal because the best of it may, like the best literature, continue to cause intense emotional satisfaction to thousands of people after thousands of years. But I am not concerned with ballistics or aerodynamics, or any of the other mathematics which has been specially devised for war. That (whatever one may think of its purposes) is repulsively ugly and intolerably dull; even Littlewood could not make ballistics respectable, and if he could not, who can?

Let us try then for a moment to dismiss these sinister by-products of mathematics and to fix our attention on the real thing. We have to consider whether real mathematics serves any purposes of importance in war, and whether any purposes which it serves are good or bad. Ought we to be glad or sorry, proud or ashamed, in war-time, that we are mathematicians?

It is plain at any rate that the real mathematics (apart from the elements) has no direct utility in war. No one has yet found any war-like purpose to be served by the theory of numbers or relativity or quantum mechanics, and it seems very unlikely that anybody will do so for many years. And of that I am glad, but in saying so I may possibly encourage a misconception.

It is sometimes suggested that pure mathematicians glory in the "uselessness" of their subject, and make it a boast that it has no "practical" applications.* The imputation is usually based on an incautious saying attributed to Gauss,\dag which has always seemed to me to have been rather crudely misinterpreted. If the theory of numbers could be employed for any practical and honourable purpose, if it could be turned directly to the furtherance of human happiness or the relief of human suffering (as for example physiology and even chemistry can), then surely neither Gauss nor any other mathematician would have been so foolish as to decry or regret such applications. But if on the other hand the applications of science have made, on the whole, at least as much for evil as for good - and this is a view which must always be taken seriously, and most of all in time of war - then both Gauss and lesser mathematicians are justified in rejoicing that there is one science at any rate whose very remoteness from ordinary human activities should keep it gentle and clean.

* I have been accused of taking this view myself. I once stated in a lecture, which was afterwards printed, that "a science is said to be useful if its development tends to accentuate the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life"; and this sentence, written in 1915, was quoted in the Observer in 1939. It was, of course, a conscious rhetorical fluorish (though one perhaps excusable at the time when it was written).

\dag To the effect that, if mathematics is the queen of the sciences, then the theory of numbers is, because of its supreme "uselessness," the queen of mathematics. I cannot find an accurate quotation.

It would be pleasant to think that this was the end of the matter, but we cannot get away from the mathematics of the workshops so easily. Indirectly, we are responsible for its existence. The gunnery experts and aeroplane designers could not do their job without quite a lot of mathematical training, and the best mathematical training is training in real mathematics. In this indirect way even the best mathematicians becomes important in war-time, and mathematics are wanted for all sorts of purposes. Most of these purposes are ignoble and dreary - what could be more soul-destroying than the numerical solution of differential equations? - but the men chosen for them must be mathematicians and not laboratory hacks, if only because they are better trained and have the better brains. So mathematics is going to be really important now, whether we like it or regret it; and it is not so obvious as it might seem at first even that we ought to regret it, since that depends upon our general view of the effect of science on war.

There are two sharply contrasted views about modern "scientific" war. The first and the most obvious is that the effect of science on war is merely to magnify its horror, both by increasing the sufferings of the minority who have to fight and by extending them to other classes. This is the orthodox view, and it is plain that, if this view is just, then the only possible defence lies in the necessity for retaliation. But there is a very different view which is also quite tenable. It can be maintained that modern warfare is less horrible than the warfare of pre-scientific times, so far at any rate as combatants are concerned; that bombs are probably more merciful than bayonets; that lachrymatory gas and mustard-gas are perhaps the most humane weapons yet devised by military science, and that the "orthodox" view rests solely on loose-thinking sentimentalism. This is the case presented with so much force by Haldane in Callinicus.* It may also be urged that the equalisation of risks which science was expected to bring would be in the long run salutary; that a civilian's life is not worth more than a soldier's, or a woman's than a man's; that anything is better than the concentration of savagery on one particular class; and that, in short, the sooner war comes "all out" the better. And if this be the right view, then scientists in general and mathematicians in particular may have a little less cause to be ashamed of their profession.

* J. B. S. Haldane, Callinicus; a defence of chemical warfare (Kegan Paul, 1924).

It is very difficult to strike a balance between these extreme opinions, and I will not try to do so. I will end by putting to myself, as I think every mathematician ought to, what is perhaps an easier question. Are there any senses in which we can say, with any real confidence, that mathematics "does good" in war? I think I can see two (though I cannot pretend that I extract a great deal of comfort from them).

In the first place it is very probable that mathematics will save the lives of a certain number of young mathematicians, since their technical skill will be applied to "useful" purposes and will keep them from the front. "Conservation of ability" is one of the official slogans; "ability" means, in practice, mathematical, physical, or chemical ability; and if a few mathematicians are "conserved" then that is at any rate something gained. It may be a bit hard on the classics and historians and philosophers, whose chances of death are that little much increased; but nobody is going to worry about the "humanities" now. It is better that some should be saved, even if they are not necessarily the most worthy.

Secondly, an older man may (if he not too old) find in mathematics an incomparable anodyne. For mathematics is, of all the arts and sciences, the most austere and the most remote, and a mathematician should be of all men the one who can most easily take refuge where, as Bertrand Russell says, "one at least of our nobler impulses can best escape from the dreary exile of the actual world." But he must not be too old - it is a pity that it should be necessary to make this very serious reservation. Mathematics is not a contemplative but a creative subject; no one can draw much consolation from it when he has lost the power or the desire to create; and that is apt to happen to a mathematician rather soon. It is a pity, but in that case he does not matter a great deal anyhow, and it would be silly to bother about him.

Eureka, 3.

Reproduced from Eureka 27 pages 12-15.
HTML conversion Copyright © 2002-4 The Archimedeans.

Additional notes to the online version

Errata: "fluorish" should read "flourish", "best mathematicians becomes" should read "best mathematics becomes", "if he not too old" should read "if he is not too old".

This article became §28 of A Mathematician's Apology.

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