G.H. Hardy wasn’t always my favorite mathematician. My first love was Gauss. A titan of mathematics and physics worlds. I learned all the well-known stories in my physics class. The most famous, how Gauss figured out how to sum all the numbers from 1-100. What I liked most was his contributions to electromagnetism.
It’s a selfish reason. It’s the only thing in physics that made sense to me. The attachment wasn’t strong. He was just filling space until I found G.H Hardy.
What turned me on to G.H. Hardy? I didn’t know about him for a long time. Nor had I heard of Ramanujan. I was rather late to the game. In my early thirties, I was re-discovering my love of mathematics. I checked out many books on the topic from the library. I stumbled upon The Music of the Primes by Marcus du Sautoy. And I too fell for the Riemann hypothesis.
I came across a paragraph which incensed me.
Mathematicians and Their Scandals
I once said that I like to argue with authors in the margins of my books. Well, I got into a fight with Du Sautoy.
He describes John E. Littlewood and G.H. Hardy:
The other thing which separated them was sexuality. It was recognized that Hardy was very likely homosexual. Nevertheless, he was discreet about it even though in Cambridge homosexuality was almost more acceptable than marriage. This was at a time when Oxford and Cambridge dons would have to leave their fellowships if they ever married. Littlewood declared Hardy to be a “non-practicing homosexual”. By all accounts, Littlewood was something of a ladies’ man. Although not up to Hilbert’s standards, he did become very friendly with a local doctor’s wife, with whom he spent summer holidays in Cornwall. Many years later, one of her children was looking into a mirror and commented on the striking resemblance to Uncle John. “That’s not surprising,” she replied, “he’s your father.”
I feel that we often reduce mathematicians to a caricature in order to get the public to care for them. It’s like mathematics isn’t enough so we have to share these stories, like Littlewood’s infidelity, to make them more human or relatable. Or we reduce Hardy down to his “eccentric” behaviors or say he was socially awkward. That annoys me.
Case in point, my friend loaned me this book.
I do have to cede something here. I did end up wanting to learn more about Hardy after reading Music of the Primes. Hardy wrote a book, which is semi-autobiographical, called A Mathematician’s Apology. It is considered one of the most accessible writings on the beauty of mathematics.
The thing is, I have the temperament to want to read other books about mathematics. I don’t know if the average person would want to dig so deep.
Was Hardy Socially Awkward?
People say G.H. Hardy was cold and shy. This is how Jeremy Irons chooses to portray Hardy in The Man Who Knew Infinity. He even quips in the film that he isn’t good at friendships.
“Sorry I’ve not been able to be a better friend to you in the traditional sense. I know you’ve needed one but I’m not very good at all of that. I…never have been. ”
Hardy didn’t say this. It came from the mind of the screenwriter.
And I’m like what!!! This doesn’t jibe with the Hardy I know!
Actually, what we see on screen is other people’s interpretations of Hardy’s behavior. This is something I want to set out to prove.
I have a thesis: I think G.H. Hardy was an introvert when people didn’t know what that was.
What is an Introvert?
We take for granted how the internet has brought introversion to the forefront. There is a lot of information out there on the topic. The most important thing to note is that introverts need to be alone to recharge their energy. Extroverts gain energy from being around people. It is also on a spectrum.
Being an introvert doesn’t mean you are lonely. It doesn’t mean you are afraid of the spotlight. It doesn’t mean that you fear public speaking. You can totally be in a leadership position or management. You can be friendly and outgoing. It doesn’t make you socially awkward. It is just another way of behaving in the world.
The best book that I’ve read on this topic is Quiet by Susan Cain.
The first time I read a description of Hardy’s behavior it felt so familiar. People have said the same about me. When you are a quiet kid, people love to project over that silence. Sometimes making assumptions about you when they could have taken 5 minutes to talk to you. I feel that I’ve had to have so many one on one conversations to clear up misconceptions with people. I try not to let that judgment get to me.
I’m no stranger to misunderstandings.
What Does Socially Awkward Mean Anyway?
I am going to get straight to the point here. “Socially Awkward” is a label we give when we don’t understand someone’s behavior. It is a term that others people and allows you to disregard them. There are certain behaviors which are anti-social. But, what is “normal” anyway. We make a presumption that other people behave similarly to us. We are stymied when we meet people who don’t mesh with that definition.
I don’t have that luxury. I behave as you would expect someone who deals with depression, anxiety, trauma and social anxiety would. Society has already labeled me as someone who behaves differently than the norm. As I’ve learned to accept myself; I’ve learned to accept other behaviors differently than my own. I get it. Sometimes a gruff exterior hides a tender heart.
I don’t think being socially awkward is a bad thing. Or something you need to change. It won’t matter to the people who care about you most. In fact, most of my friends refer to me as adorkable and that label has grown on me over time.
When I tried to fit in and follow the rules that sort of thing never worked for me. I tried lots of things. Even switching schools. The best thing for me was just to learn to love myself. You can try to please other people but they don’t matter. What you think about yourself is most important.
I really wish G.H. Hardy had left behind a diary. I am so curious to know what he thought of himself. Instead he leaves behind his mathematical papers, speeches, some essays, a book, and anecdotes from the people who knew him. I’m doing my best to gather evidence to support my argument. I am returning to London in February and hope to do more research.
My goal is not to glorify another white male mathematician. Honestly, I think that Ramanujan has eclipsed him in many ways. I think Hardy would approve of that.
I just want to cast Hardy in a new light. Much in the same way as Lin-Manual Miranda did for Alexander Hamilton.
Miranda too saw something in Hamilton that no one else could see because of his knowledge of hip-hop. A unique perspective that no one was expecting. And, yes, I’ve gone through all the Genius annotations to get all the references.
Hardy wasn’t a perfect person by any means. I still think we can learn a lot from him. So, I will continue to shape that narrative.
This post is part of a series on most viewed articles on Beauty of Mathematics.