A Question for a Question: Robert Langlands’ Interview


In March 24, 1983, the New York Times published the following interview with mathematician Robert Langlands (1936- ):

Q: What does a theoretical mathematician do?

A: You mean what does he do or why does he do it?

Q: What is your aim, your goal?

A: Let me think a minute before I answer that question. Are you asking, what is the purpose of theoretical mathematics? What role does it play in the lives of mathematicians or what are the individual’s motives?

Q: What does a theoretical mathematician do all day? What is the nature of his work? What is his pursuit, his activity?

A: All right, but of course there are many things one does. But you want to know what he does when he thinks?

Q: Yes, exactly.

A: Ah well, I’ve never been able to explain to anyone else, any non-mathematician, that to me at least the objects with which one deals are very real. But that’s not precisely an answer to your question.

The article stated that Langlands was struggling to answer the questions, though it can also be argued that he’s just not in the mood to answer the correspondent’s questions. So, was he really having a hard time or was he just messing with the interviewer? You decide.

See Also:

When Frank Nelson Cole Factored a Large Number During a “Lecture”

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My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. You can find me on Twitter` and Facebook. My email is edmarklaw@learnfunfacts.com

21 thoughts on “A Question for a Question: Robert Langlands’ Interview

  1. I think he was answering a question with a question – hard to say if he was toying with the interviewer, or it was just too technical of a subject to convey in simple terms to a layman. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and go with the latter.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Explaining to someone, who may consider calculus as a “difficult” subject, theoretical math is almost impossible. The number of specializations and abstractions in today’s pure mathematics is overwhelming.

      Personally, I studied number theory and combinatorics. Every time someone asks me what is number theory, I just answer that it’s about studying numbers and number patterns (and it’s also use for cryptography). As for combinatorics, I just say that it’s about calculating combinations, like how many number combinations are there in a lottery. If I talk about the real stuff, no one would understand it.

      To the general public, math is not as exciting as physics. Also, the math involved in physics is much simpler than the math in pure math. Nonetheless, it seems that there are now more and more emphasis to abstraction in physics today, like the purely mathematical string theory.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When I was in high school, our City lost the millage for the schools. Our first two years of high school we had four hours of school, and nothing extra-curricular and no college prep classes. So we had basic math only – I had algebra and geometry (which I’m embarrassed to say I never understood either of them) and they were taught by a former football coach who had a minor in mathematics and had senority over the math teachers. He was not coaching for those two years. I never too higher math classes like calculus, physics – so they were never a requirement to graduate from high school, nor in college either. I can’t fathom doing math like this having never been subjected to it.
        I can remember when I was younger, my father, who was a tool-and-diemaker, would bring home calculations to do for the next work day. This was before a calculator was readily accessible. He had a slide rule and would work on calculations in the evening sometimes. Then Texas Instruments came out with a calculator and I remember him getting one and telling my mom and me that a couple of buttons to push could eliminate hours of doing math and calculations.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I like math for as long as I could remember though I didn’t like my math classes as they are mostly boring and uneventful. It’s only when I was in the university when I started to appreciate it as a school subject.

        Since I opted for the science curriculum, physics and calculus were required.

        I still have my grandfather’s slide rule.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I remember my father sitting with that slide rule and also with a compass and protractor to do calculations. The tools he used were in metric measurements and Canada was not on the metric system back in those days.

        This slide rule was from your grandfather who passed away earlier this year?

        I was born in Canada and lived there until age 10 when my father transferred over to Michigan with Ford Motor Company. In Canada the schools often double-promoted their elementary age students for the grades that were considered “repeat grades” so I skipped a couple of grades. I was a good student and on the honor roll, but many kids in the classes were double-promoted if you passed a proficiency test. I was an only child and my mom sat with me to learn simple math and spelling words long before I started kindergarten. When I moved over here, sixth grade encompassed studies I learned one or two years ago. I was bullied because I had a Canadian accent – the teacher stood me up in front of the class to read “in Canadian” and kids beat me up on the way home from school and in the bathroom. I hated school and soon became a “C” student. I never became a good student like I was in Canada again and though I did graduate from college with a Bachelor’s Degree, it was just a “B” average to be honest and I had to work hard to get that. I have to tell you that I never understood algebra or geometry in high school. It sailed right over my head. I graduated from high school young – I had just turned 17 and was the youngest in a class of 613 students.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. No, it was from my grandfather from my father’s side who’s a construction worker. He died 10 years ago.

        I can somehow relate to that since I also skipped several grades. When I was 9, they allowed me to go to highschool. It should have been earlier, but my parents refused.

        I was rather big for my age group but of course, I was not as big as those 13 year-olds. So, they thought that it was a good idea to bully me. However, they quickly learned that I wasn’t a pushover. Also, they became aware that I knew certain people that they wouldn’t want to mess with. Thus, in the end, they just left me alone.

        Bullies are cowards and they only bully those who they assume would not retaliate.

        In my experience, most teachers are useless when it comes to dealing with bullies. I have seen several students who were getting bullied and the teachers’ response was indifference. Sometimes, they seemed to care, but they actually didn’t. I suppose that your teachers were worse.

        I ended up studying for 5 years in highschool and skipping the last 2 years. They recommended that I apply to a university after 3 years of studies but I declined as I found highschool quite enjoyable once I found some friends.

        People shpuld understand that bullying is not just a “let children be children” thing as it can cause a lot of damage…

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I agree with you wholeheartedly Edmark. As to the bullying, I never told my parents and hid any bruises or scrapes well as none were on my face and they never broke my glasses – they were smart in that regard, if not for anything else. I didn’t tell my parents as I knew my father would have to miss time from work and he had a bad temper, so I just kept my mouth shut. When the female teacher I had for two 7th grade classes (history, English) and study hall and home room (worthless hours, all you did was sit there and study) insisted I had made obscene phonecalls to her home on Easter night and she wanted me suspended, I walked out of class and went to my 7th grade principal. She had paddled me in the hall countless times for chewing gum, talking in class and throwing spitballs (forgive me … no doubt an American game but it is just as it sounds … wet wadded up paper) on the say-so of other kids in the class who tattled on me (I did none of these things), I had had enough. She was the one who was suspended for the rest of the school year. My father came to the school and made a big stink and it was embarrassing as well. I did better with a new teacher and the rest of my junior high school days were not so angst-filled. Teachers have no control of their students these days – I think the kids are so involved with their phones or other devices that they say and do what pleases them and teachers are powerless to intervene. We have had many incidents of bullying where the students, usually teens, take their own life as a result of it. We have at least three or four a year that I hear about. I hope the bullying kids have some remorse but I highly doubt it.


  2. How to explain a whole universe of theory in a few words?
    Please learn something of what it is you wish to know, so that the question you ask is related specifically to the purpose of my life’s work …

    Liked by 3 people

  3. This, I think this falls in the realm of buying an expensive anything. If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford the answer. For those who believe, a well known composer once remarked, that in his opinion, music is a higher revelation than mathematics.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. There’s a third alternative: that through his answer we’ve just been given a glimpse into the day of a theoretical mathematician. I suspect his answer is what theoretical mathematicians do all day — at least, in a manner of speaking.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Perhaps, I have a Master’s Degree in Mathematics (Number Theory and Combinatorics) so I have interacted with many mathematicians. We are actually very talkative when talking with each other but find it hard (or pointless) to explain abstract stuff to non mathematicians…

      Liked by 1 person

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