Is Mathematics Lonely?

I think it is perceived this way. I wanted to pose this question to others. I cannot speak as an expert on mathematics. I’m not a mathematician and I haven’t done a PhD. Though I would like to hear the answer from someone who has.

I am an expert on loneliness as someone who has experienced the extremes of that emotion. I also have a degree in psychology and researched the topic. It is something which I have intimate knowledge of unfortunately. So, I hope that I can at least tackle it from that background.

This question is inspired by a conversation that I had early on in the development of this blog.

Talking with a Mathematician

One of the things that I do to promote my blog is outreach. I try to connect with others writing about mathematics online. I stumbled on a mathematician who particularly liked my blog and we scheduled a phone call.

We had a good conversation. She liked my approach to writing by sharing anecdotes about my experiences with mathematics. She had always wanted to do an event where people gather on a particular day of the year to write fiction about math. We were both storytellers.

She said something curious to me after I explained about my childhood.

“All mathematicians have experienced the loneliness you have.”

I was taken aback by this. Could it be true? My experiences are so traumatic compared to others. I truly wondered if I could have some kinship with the people I admired.

My Experiences with Loneliness and Mathematics

I have talked briefly about the things that happened when I was younger. I doubt that I’ll ever go into much detail. I was ignored by everyone including my own family. It seemed that the only people who wanted anything to do with me were those who bullied or abused me. I got used to being on my own all of the time because it was better than the alternative. I was socially isolated from others.

One of my few escapes was my love of mathematics. I would make up games that I could play by myself in my room. Math only requires your mind. That to me is freedom. It is an activity that requires creativity and imagination which can be performed anywhere.

I never found anyone that shared this interest with me. I tried to talk to others but was always disappointed in their reactions to me. In honesty, it always seemed like a subject that caused others pain.

In High School, I tried to approach a group of boys who were in my physics and math classes. I looked up to them because the subjects seemed easy for them. Maybe they would understand my feelings. I found out that they didn’t much care for the subjects. Doing well in those courses was just a way to get into a better college. Could you blame them?

I really didn’t find anyone to talk to about mathematics until I started watching Numberphile and discovered a community of like minded people. I now understand that mathematicians are the people who feel the way I do about math. I wish that I understood this as a kid. I might have pursued math instead of psychology.

Why Mathematics Could be Perceived as Lonely

I think there are three ways in which mathematics could be considered lonely. I’ll admit there is likely more. I can only speak from my own experiences. I very much welcome feedback.

Firstly, I think that mathematics is a very solitary subject but this isn’t necessarily the same as lonely. What I mean by this is while some people may work alone they may not feel alone.

When I think back to my favorite mathematicians they aren’t solitary figures. Take G.H Hardy whose collaboration with John Edensor Littlewood is one of the most prolific in math history. We also have infamously the work of Paul Erdős who spent his whole career working with other mathematicians. The idea of a mathematician toiling alone in isolation isn’t always true.

Secondly, I think it is very possible to feel alone in your program. Especially if you have a marginalized identity or an intersection of identities. There are many people who are in programs where they never see anyone like them. There is still a lot of gate keeping in mathematics and I’ve experienced that as someone who is non-binary. Growing up, my interests in mathematics were not encouraged and I did not receive mentorship from my teachers. This is why I support THRIVE Lifeline because I believe that if I had that type of support that I would have studied mathematics the first time I was in college.

Thirdly, I think that doing a PhD is most likely a lonely experience. I follow Dr. Zoë Ayres on Twitter who has published a book on managing your mental health while doing a PhD. She also helps to run Voices of Academia which is mental health blog featuring essays from graduate students and others in academia. Good resources if you need help. I can’t speak on this topic though jut what I’ve read of others experiences.

Research on Loneliness

Lastly, I wanted to take the time to talk about some research on loneliness because it is a serious health issue. Some may even say it is an epidemic and this was even before Covid-19 happened. There is an important distinction we have to make when we talk about loneliness. It is not a measure of how connected you are or how isolated. It is subjective based on your perception of the gap between the connection you have and the connection you want. Even if you have a lot of social connections, you may still be lonely. That total recluse could be perfectly content.

The health risks of loneliness include anxiety and depression as you might expect. But also heart disease and stroke. One study compared the health impact of loneliness to that of smoking cigarettes. The thing is, even as we get ,more connected over social media people are reporting a decline in the amount of good friends they have. A decline that has been reported for years. This research on loneliness isn’t new due to pandemic. We’ve been monitoring it for awhile.

If you want to learn more, than you need to dive into the work of the psychologist Dr. John Cacioppo. It was his research that defined and studied this problem. He even wrote a book abut it. Shockingly, John passed away a few years ago in 2018. One reason why I agreed to be interviewed for the Alone Together Podcast. The premise of it is based on Dr. Cacioppo’s research.

Summary

There is one reason why I was able to survive my childhood isolation. I realized that I wasn’t the problem. While I did wish for friends and safety, I was able to keep my own company and sustain myself. I knew that when I turned `18 that my life would be very different. I met my best friend on the first day of college over twenty years ago. I’m still friends with the same gaming group that I had in the dorms. I will say that I am vey traumatized from my experiences though. I still struggle with asking for help from others.

One of my goals for the New Year is to become more integrated with the math community online. I’m going to try to do a series of interviews with mathematicians. I think it will do me good to expand my bubble beyond Numberphile to the work of people who aren’t in the spotlight but whose research is still very interesting to me.