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Banned math book (johndcook.com)
197 points by ColinWright 17 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 108 comments

In Argentina a military governor from our last dictatorship banned teaching Set theory because it was a "collectivist idea" and was "against the individual". You can learn more here (spanish): https://www.nexos.com.mx/?p=3404

Specifically, they banned the book "Conceptos básicos de matemática moderna" (Modern Maths Basic Concepts) / Hernández-Rojo-Rabuffetti

This reminds me of the Indiana Pi Bill that tried to pass a legislation concerning the value of pi

Always fun when legislators try and get in the way of reason.


It's a good thing no one ever told General Menendez[1] about how commonly arrows are reversed in category theory.


Heraclitus having come up with πάντα ῥεῖ, he'd probably be the first one to carry a banner saying "Down with Heraclitus!"

[1] No doubt the General would have disapproved of Bajofondo as well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8SVYDvMVzY

Well, category theory is pure subversive stuff, just check the Lawvere-Hegel link or Grothendieck giving lectures at the Hanoi jungle to protest Vietnam War :)

If even Joan Baez's cousin John doesn't get the Hegelian Taco, it may take me a little while to work up to it.

Speaking of Hanoi, leg warmers were another item of pop culture found on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

"Hanoi" Jane vs. Liliya Sabitova



(bonus track: Hart, "Peace for Triple Piano" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcRW3FMuttY )

I suspect you are a GPT-3 bot :)

I'd like to send a shout out to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Engine, Borges' Library of Babel, and Mark V. Shaney...

Conservapedia’s math articles have a pretty amusing history:


Wow. But come to think of it, set theory is subtle stuff compared with 1+1+1 = 1 (unless they're talking about characteristic 2?) or reading the old testament under a non-injective mapping (in particular, the Book of Ruth, a non-identity element, seems to be in their kernel?).

Q. what's an anagram of Banach-Tarski?

That is absolutely ridiculous. Wow!

To be fair, the "new math" of the 60s deserved that.

If you disliked the new math, you'll detest Linderholm, Mathematics Made Difficult


I saw that a long time ago, it is hilarious.

Tom Lehrer thought New Math was weird enough that he wrote a song about how to subtract with it. (Verse 2 is in base 8!)


What's the copyright status on this book?

It's surprising to me that a new copy still costs $150 in 2020, when it was published in 1924, and both authors passed away 45+ years ago, and are thus unlikely to be "promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts".

The answer to this question is somewhat complex and depends on the country whose copyright laws you are talking about. Most copyright-abiding countries have adopted a copyright length of Life + 70 years, but several (most notably Canada) use Life + 50 years. However, there are a lot of exceptions in many of these countries regarding works created in the mid-20th century. The US, incredibly, has a copyright of 95 years for works published between 1924-1977, but a term of Life + 70 years for works published after that.

Since the beginning of this year, the original German edition of the book that was published in 1924 is in the public domain in the US (and most likely only the US). Unfortunately this applies only to this edition and not to any translated versions.

I looked around the front matter of the book and did not see any mention of a translator; presumably this means that Courant translated this himself. This means as soon as 50 years has elapsed from Courant's death (in 1972), all editions will be in the public domain in Canada and a few other countries (in 2023). In most other countries, this book will be in the public domain 20 years later than that (in 2043). The US is once again exceptional, where each edition will enter the public domain separately, 95 years after their publication. The English version of Volume 1 of this text in the Amazon preview appears to have been published in 1953, which would mean it would be in the public domain in 2049, well after it would be available in virtually every other country in the world.

Of course, all of this discussion above assumes that copyrights don't get extended again before these works enter the public domain. The US Supreme Court has ruled that arbitrarily extending copyrights before they expire is sufficient to satisfy the "limited Times" mentioned in the Constitution; what matters is apparently that the copyrights are set to expire at some point, not that they ever actually do.

> Most copyright-abiding countries have adopted a copyright length of Life + 70 years, but several (most notably Canada) use Life + 50 years.

Canada is now Life + 70. Article 20.62 of CUSMA (new NAFTA) requires copyright term to be no less than that.


Thanks for that information. I had not known that was a part of CUSMA.

From reading a Canadian law firm's analysis of the changes (https://www.blakes.com/insights/bulletins/2020/ip-post-nafta...), Canada has 2.5 years (until the end of 2023) to enact this change. This can also be seen in the link you provided in Article 20.89.4.c. (The link I provided mislabels this as Article 20.90. or perhaps refers to an alternate draft of the document.)

It appears that Canada has not enacted this law just yet, although I may be mistaken about that. Depending on when they do, Courant's work may or may not enter the public domain in 2023, although it seems more likely than not that the copyright term will be extended by then.

Someone could produce a new, free version from the now-liberated original German though.

That's true.

I found a copy of the original German (unfortunately in scanned, DJVU form), but it was somewhat tricky to find. This comment inspired me to upload it to the Internet Archive so that others can access it more easily (https://archive.org/details/methoden-der-mathematischen-erst...).

Someone with GPT-3 access could give it a go - it is able to translate, right?

GPT-3 guesses the next word or words after a given input, allowing it to write articles that make at least some sense. Translation of a textbook (especially math) would be way out of its wheelhouse.

Hilbert died in 1943, so his copyright will have expired at the end of 2013 in many countries, including the UK and US

Courant died in 1973, so his copyright will expire at the end of 2043.

fucking disney

A very smart move by the political system to make activists hate some impalpable company moloch named "Disney" instead of the concretely named congressmen/congresswomen who voted for the law for copyright extension.

Indeed: https://www.congress.gov/bill/105th-congress/house-bill/2589

Notably, Sonny Bono for whom, along with the other sponsers I withhold invective purely out of respect of this community and its value of civil discourse.

I find the extension from 50 to 70 years extremely distasteful; manifest contempt by 'artists' for the commons and society's investment in their success.

Congresspeople come and go, but Disney will reign eternal, partly because of lobbied-for legislation like this!

Don't misunderstand; they're hated too. The US Congress has something like a low-teens approval rating.

But between the two organizations, gerrymandering means the politicians can't be voted out but people can "vote" to lower Disney's status with their dollars.

It's weird though, because they are roughly about as effective at lowering Disney's status as they are at voting the politicians out because collective action problems are hard.

Eh, isn't this a given in a corporate state?

Disney doesn't pass laws. Congress does.

Disney has done extensive lobbying to extend copyright terms. See the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.


Passed by some of the finest Congressmen money can buy.

The law passed the Senate with unanimous consent, it doesn't seem like there are congressmen out of their budget.

Come on, we all know Congress would not have passed those laws if "companies" weren't spending millions on those politicians.

I think the implication is that "rent seekers gonna seek" is a fact of life, and that "a government that resists rent seeking" is the part of the equation we might be able to control.

Shouldn't both problems be tackled? Why should we accept rent seeking as inevitable? We could just as well accept political corruption as inevitable.

> Why should we accept rent seeking as inevitable?

In my mind, a couple big reasons.

One, for the same reason that we accept a lot of awful things like murder as inevitable. Of course we'd rather get rid of these things, but it's unrealistic to think we'll get rid of them completely, so the systems we have in place for dealing with them when they happen will always be very important.

Two, because these things are often in the eye of the beholder. What I see as "rent seeking", you might see as "providing a public good". Most people (on HN at least) think current US copyright law represents a lot of rent seeking by Disney. But most of the same people still support some notion of copyright. There's no clear line where "public good that most people agree with" ends and "rent seeking" begins.

Yes, but enabling this kind of lobbying is the responsibility of government.

No, preventing it is the responsibility of the government. :-p

On a more serious note, there's not a lot that individuals can do about this – even individual politicians. The systems involved have to change pretty fundamentally to prevent lobbying from working. How do you think those systems can be changed to accomplish that?

Maybe to start there could be mandatory disclosure of all donations/vacations/other lobbying tactics that each senator is engaged in, correlated with their track record of voting and publicly disclosed and actively monitored.

I agree it's a hard problem, but I think with a big enough pool of information everyone could get a letter/email saying that politician x cost you y amount this year by voting this way. I know I would be compelled to make some changes.

1. Promise to give lots of money to the senators who vote for their interests well enough. This doesn't even have to be targeted. 2. A neutral party collates all that information, and publishes it. 3. Wait until the first sufficiently-helpful senator retires, and is no longer bound by the rules. 4. Reward them. 5. Wait. 6. Profit.

Better than the status quo, since only huge companies will still be able to effectively lobby, but introduces problems of its own. That is, assuming the system works as intended. Which it won't.

Because how do you make sure the disclosure is mandatory? This punishes honest lobbyers (and honest lobbyees) more than it punishes dishonest ones; if all politicians are being lobbied evenly from all possible causes, but cause B's lobbying is secretive, politicians are incentivised to vote for cause B (i.e. against ¬B, which they are being publicly lobbied by).

This system does incentivise not being the ones to lobby, though – assuming there's no way to do lobbying that appears to be ¬B lobbying, so the politicians can be virtuous and vote B, which makes the “¬B lobbyists” lobby harder because obviously their bribes weren't big enough…

And Disney bribes them to. (But we don't call it that).

It's hard to tell the difference between a bribe and extortion.

"I'll give you $1M if you extend the copyright timeline."

"If you don't give me $1M I'll let your copyright expire."

Does anybody else believe that congresspeople should be paid $10M/yr, indexed to inflation? This would be a drop in the federal budget, but would do a lot I think to curb both bribery and extortion.

> but would do a lot I think to curb both bribery and extortion

I disagree. If anything it will push them for more bribery and extortion. Wealth seeks wealth and there is never enough wealth.


Of course Disney aims to maximize their value of the IP, also via methods that most don't feel are honest and net good for society.

But that's where law makers should be expected to hold back and take the opinions and interests of others into account too.

Individuals don't have the funds necessary to influence Congress. Disney does.

We're talking about individuals in Congress. They absolutely have the funds necessary to influence their own behavior.

I definitely disagree about that. Look at how much time a Congressperson spends raising funds. They clearly don't have the funds necessary to influence their own behavior. They seek out donors and act in those donors' interest in legislative matters. (I'm not saying they work exclusively in donors' interest, but it's clear that donors' interests are taken into account.)

Eh? Even if a person would not end up with enough funds to secure re-election if they chose to vote against a measure, does not mean that they don’t have the freedom to vote against it.

They are still responsible for their actions even if the alternative actions would be highly against their self-interest.

Even a person who is threatened with death if they don’t take an action, is still free to either take or not take the action. They might be justified in taking the action on the basis of said threat, even if the action would ordinarily be forbidden, but they are still making a choice.

I'm also open to donations, but that doesn't mean I don't have enough money to do my job and act with integrity.

But does keeping your job next year require you to spend more than $1M?

And yes, in about 90% of rates in the US, the person who spent more won: https://www.opensecrets.org/elections-overview/winning-vs-sp...

I'd prefer it if they had no chance in hell anyway: https://www.termlimits.com/

Term limits shift power to lobbying groups and aides who know what the Hell's going on and how to work the system.

So we're back to blaming Disney for the fact that legislators can't be bothered to vote with their conscience?

No, we're acknowledging that legislating is a skilled job, and that experience counts.

Look at the average tenure of a US legislator, look at Copyright Law in the US, and say that again.

Sure: Legislators have to prioritize lots of different things, not just copyright terms, and the skill of making deals while operating within the rules and traditions of a legislature is one they must learn on the job. Having a bunch of short-timers wouldn't make copyright law reform any more likely, and it certainly wouldn't make anyone more likely to vote their conscience. Further, copyright law isn't an issue of conscience for most legislators to begin with, no matter how long they've been in office, as most of them, like most of their constituents, don't understand the value of public domain or the importance of shared culture.

Disney buys the laws.

Easily found on archive.org: https://archive.org/details/MethodsOfMathematicalPhysicsVolu...

I, not focusing on math in school, had not heard of the book. But became curious reading the glowing praise in the article and this thread.

> "promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts".

The value of their work doesn't end with their death. This means that they can sell the rights prior to dying and receive some of that value.

Hilbert and Courant is BY FAR the best mathematical physics book in existence. No contest. Boas and all the others are good, even very good. H & C beats them by a kiloParsec.

New edition of Arfken, Weber and Harris is great!

Hildebrand "Methods of Applied Mathematics" is the most approachable math text I've read. After hearing me express confusion about various topics that my dad thought were straightforward, he gave me his book from when he was in college, and yes, things were suddenly straightforward.

I like the detail that Hilbert asked what a Hilbert space was. Reminded me of hearing that Planck never called it Planck's constant, either using simply 'h' or 'the constant'.

I couldn’t understand the anecdote. What did hilbert think of the space? The author doesn’t say anything!

I'm fairly sure Courant was persecuted for being Jewish. Other biographies are pretty clear on this and I can find no reference to what political party Courant belonged to in Germany.

Wikipedia has, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Courant:

Courant left Germany in 1933, earlier than many Jewish escapees. He did not lose his position due to being Jewish, as his previous service as a front-line soldier exempted him; however, his public membership in the social-democratic left was reason enough (for the Nazis) for dismissal

The citation there [1; pdf] has some additional information.

I'm sure Courant was persecuted for being Jewish (see e.g. the discussion in that same document about how Landau was treated), but it seems to have not been the official reason for his dismissal.

[1] http://irma.math.unistra.fr/~schappa/NSch/Publications_files...

It’s not as though the Nazis started immediately murdering all Jews (or anyone they deemed Jewish) in 1933.

For example, the Nuremberg Laws (which, among other things, banned marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans) only went into effect in 1935.

Considering the Nazis only were in positions of power for twelve years and still managed to murder six million Jews and many million other people they did not like, they did move quickly and there certainly were sudden shifts and changes in what people (in particular Jews) were allowed to do and subjected to. However, the overall trajectory was still one of turning up the intensity, not going into it with full intensity, among other things certainly also for propaganda reasons.

Given that the Social Democratic Party was the only part voting against the Enabling Act in 1933 (Communist MPs were at that point already all imprisoned, banned from parliament or fleeing) he certainly had, however, two things the Nazis could attack him for, whichever was more convenient.

So makes sense to me that they pushed him out and makes sense to me that he fled as quickly as possible.

The Nazis murdered plenty of Social Democrats. The Nazis obviously murdered plenty of Jews. If someone was Jewish and a Social Democrat the distinction of why the Nazis were persecuting them becomes sort of an academic one. They might name either or both reasons, whichever sounds more convenient.

>> He did not lose his position due to being Jewish, as his previous service as a front-line soldier exempted him

That's a bit like saying nobody in the US gets shot by police because they're black, since that's illegal. Anti-semites in Germany didn't suddenly start liking Jews who had rights.

Thanks for finding that detail. I went to that article and missed it somehow.

Apparently one thing nazis and german communists could agree upon, both in theory and in practice, during the early thirties was that the social-democratic centrist/moderate alternative to either extreme had to be destroyed.

(I left off reading Weil around this point. I'd get back to it, but find political systems without a healthy number of major parties rather depressing subjects.)

He would absolutely have been persecuted for being Jewish; all Jews in Nazi Germany were at the time, of course. The official reason he lost his job was due to membership of the SDP, though.

Does anyone know exactly where the ban was published?

I haven't found it under either Courant or Hilbert in either




(Note the font change between 1935 and 1938, clearly showing I was in the wrong on https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23446057 My bad!)

For anyone who wants to know more about Courant’s life, the people he crossed paths with (which include some of the great mathematicians of the 20th C), and how NYU came to have the Courant Institute, Constance Reid’s biography is and nice read.

Initially I suspected that the most likely reason was that the _Deutsche Physik_ babble (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsche_Physik) somehow had got out of hand, but evidently that wasn’t it.

This is nothing compared to Hinduism's varna system(caste system), where the entire society is split in to 4 groups and learning to read and write is banned to the bottom 3 groups. Even the skills of one group is prohibited to be learned by the other.

I do dislike the phrase "banned book" because it doesn't indicate who banned it, which is all that matters. In this case, the Nazis over the author's political affiliation (to save you from the click bait title).

Is there another phrasing you'd recommend?

I don't have a gripe with the term per se but in this case omitting who did it plainly renders the headline clickbait. If one tiny bit of info added to a headline would lose you most of your clicks, you're being deceptive to gain clicks. In this case the info is that the Nazis banned the book, because no one at all familiar with their book-banning criteria would find it surprising that math books were among the ones they banned, and so would shrug and move on without clicking. The implication of the headline is that the banning is novel or surprising or perhaps especially (and most provocatively) due to its content, but it's not.

Any phrasing that includes some context: where, when, and by whom. How significant a ban is very much depends on this. I have no interest in reading an article about a book banned in Saudi Arabia, for example. Nazi Germany is not too far in the “countries in which a book being banned is utterly unsurprising” list.

Exactly. And a book shouldn't be listed as a "banned book" because one overly-cautious librarian decided they shouldn't have it in a school. You wouldn't call something "illegal" if it were illegal just in one country for a brief period of time. And 'banned' is used as a badge of honor - in this case it really has nothing to do with the book content either.

We got lucky that the nazis banned and expelled legitimate science and scientists on political grounds. This ensured that their science progress stagnated thus preventing them from acquiring nukes in time to change the course of the war.

But do remember an unknown number of them were persecuted and probably killed. We don't how better the world would have been if all those lives curtailed made their fullest contribution.

I’m not sure developing nuclear weapons by any nation was a good thing. We would be better off without nuclear weapons and the MAD associated.

While there have been conflicts and violence, and the period of time following the development of nuclear weapons has been too short to say definitively, we've had unprecedented levels of peace since the development of nuclear weapons.

One has to come to the conclusion that it was inevitable. The simplest fission bomb is trivially simple to describe once the physics are known.

Not trivial to make without the resources of a major industrial nation, but the actual simplest mechanism is essentially just sufficiently purifying two lumps of a metal of sufficient size and quickly smashing them together.

You don’t get modern technology, say the transistor, without nuclear inevitability.

Hard to say, nuclear weapons have also prevented WWIII so far.

I strongly doubt that. It's the global supply chain that prevent the another WW.

You think the global supply chain is what prevented outright war between the US and Russia during the cold war?

It's both. MAD gave breathing room for a global supply chain unhindered by another continent-consuming transnational conflict.

It's hard to imagine some country wouldn't have pulled it off. The physics were beginning to be understood (and it's worth remembering: until the first test detonations, the actual power of the weapons was not well understood. Granted, once it was understood, the country that developed them did choose to deploy them on a civilian populace...).

Not disagreeing with you, but I'm sure we can all agree nukes in the hands of Nazi Germany would have been an unmitigated disaster.


Not to speak about Soviet Russia’s censorship even of Eistein’s works at some time.

I agree that we are on a slippery slope here, but to equate BLM with Nazis is... well, I'm not sure, but that doesn't seem like a fair comparison to me.

Gone With The Wind being pulled is about the non-suppression of black culture in the US. Yes, at the cost of suppressing southern white culture. But don't get me wrong-- I think promoting Black media is the best way forward, rather than suppressing anything at all. However, to compare this freely made decision on the part of streaming providers to meet societal/popular demand to a fascist regime hellbent on genocide...?

Finally, you have always been liable to lose your job for having the wrong political views. Especially if you are vocal about them. Political perspective is not a protected class in the US, but maybe it should be? I could see some logic to something like that.

It's protected in some states (California) but not federally.

Whether it should be is... Complicated. The KKK is a political organization. I don't, personally, relish the idea of dueling lawsuits if political affiliation were protected and a company fired someone for Title VII violations for passing out pamphlets from their local KKK chapter about the supremacy of the white man.

From the post:

I wondered why the book was banned. Was Courant Jewish? I’d never considered this before, because I couldn’t care less about the ethnicity of authors. Jew or Greek, bond or free, male or female, I just care about their content.

John, you start a post about Courant's Jewishness by denying that you have any interest in his Jewishness. This conveys the sense that being a Jew is dirty and should not be brought up in polite company. Don't do this.

"Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize. Assume good faith."


If you go through life looking to be offended, guess what? You're going to get offended.

I read it as him asking if Courant was part of a discriminated class at that time, not as him passing judgement on whether the class should be discriminated against.

This is eerily similar to today's world, where countries like India banning apps because it started in another country..

I don't think banning tiktok because it works as spywware for the Chinese government is the same thing..

Well ... the banning is _partly_ in response to border violations by a neighbouring country. They're not dissimilar in spirit to sanctions, economic and otherwise, that a certain empowered country imposes on other less-empowered states.

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