The unplanned impact of mathematics

Peter Rowlett:

As a child, I read a joke about someone who invented the electric plug and had to wait for the invention of a socket to put it in. Who would invent something so useful without knowing what purpose it would serve? Mathematics often displays this astonishing quality. Trying to solve real-world problems, researchers often discover that the tools they need were developed years, decades or even centuries earlier by mathematicians with no prospect of, or care for, applicability. And the toolbox is vast, because, once a mathematical result is proven to the satisfaction of the discipline, it doesn’t need to be re-evaluated in the light of new evidence or refuted, unless it contains a mistake. If it was true for Archimedes, then it is true today.

The mathematician develops topics that no one else can see any point in pursuing, or pushes ideas far into the abstract, well beyond where others would stop. Chatting with a colleague over tea about a set of problems that ask for the minimum number of stationary guards needed to keep under observation every point in an art gallery, I outlined the basic mathematics, noting that it only works on a two-dimensional floor plan and breaks down in three-dimensional situations, such as when the art gallery contains a mezzanine. “Ah,” he said, “but if we move to 5D we can adapt …” This extension and abstraction without apparent direction or purpose is fundamental to the discipline. Applicability is not the reason we work, and plenty that is not applicable contributes to the beauty and magnificence of our subject.