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Adventures of a Mathematician brings an unsung scientist back into the light (arstechnica.com)
53 points by benbreen 12 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 14 comments

I think most mathematicians are "unsung" heroes outside their fields. It is hard and obscure for most people to relate to. Influencers are more relatable to the masses.

Those who ever did mathematics or physics etc do know them though.

Anyone who knows about the Monte Carlo method knows Ulam:


Most in society know about say Pascal for his philosophical/betting ideas than his mathematical contributions:


Or Newton for having an apple fall on his head (gravity) than his (funnily enough disputed just like Ulam) contributions to mathematics:


Or even modern mathematicians/technologists who helped create the theoretical foundational framework for polar codes and 5G technologies like Erdal Arikan (Erdal who???):




Ulam was very famous (at least among nerds) and extremely impactful on the real world, maybe not entirely in a good way (keywords: "Teller Ulam"). The book was very good. I didn't know til just now that there was a movie. I read the book quite a few years ago so when I saw the headline, I tried to remember what unsung scientist(s) Ulam might have written about in it, that would help us remember them. Imagine my surprise on clicking the link, that the unsung scientist was Ulam himself. Ulam was great, but quite well known, even if there aren't any literal songs about him.

Added: I can only think of one really "sung" mathematician: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lf1mB8OZeg

The book is well worth a read too. There are some great bits with John Von Neumann.

On a similar note, Adventures of a Physicist by Luis Alvarez is also a great read. Among many other things, he and his son proposed the theory that the dinosaurs' extinction was caused by a meteor.

Of all mathematicians who would qualify as unsung, von Neumann is the last...

Ulam has a result in measure theory the French mathematician LeCam called tightness. The result is in

Patrick Billingsley, Convergence of Probability Measures, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1968.

The result was used in a course I took in measure theory based probability theory. Later I used the result in one paper to show that a goofy statistical hypothesis test was not trivial.

The URL I've had of the picture of Ulam, von Neumann, and Feynman at Los Alamos during WWII moved, but another copy is at


I remember loving the book, especially the humour. For example: "There are three kinds of mathematicians, those who can count and those who can't." But the movie was (for me anyway), dour, preachy and depressing. A lot of hand wringing about the morality of working on the H-Bomb built into the dialog. No doubt some (or maybe many) of the scientists working on the Manhattan project were morally conflicted, but I doubt that they spent a lot of time while working discussing this as shown in the movie. I wish the movie had addressed this issue but had given more focus on Ulam's humour.

Must admit I only knew him for the spiral:


Assigning the moniker “hero” to people responsible for developing nuclear annihilation?





not famous, praised, or admired, although deserving to be

I suspect the parent knows the meaning, but considers it wrong as applied to Ulam.

I wish the parent had taken the time and effort to actually make his point, instead of leaving an easily misunderstood, single-word non-comment in the hope of some easy fake internet points. This is how forums degrade.

Perhaps in an effort to increase the comment quality of HN, we should all pitch in some engineering time pro-bono to Reddit. Before you strike me down, think about it.

The book is well worth a read too.

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