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History of Science Seminar


Finn Aaserud <[log in to unmask]>


Finn Aaserud <[log in to unmask]>


Wed, 1 Apr 2009 09:38:46 +0200





text/plain (1 lines)

Dear all:

The noted historian of science in Russia and the Soviet Union, Loren Graham,
has joined forces with the French mathematician Jean-Michel Kantor to write
the book Naming Infinity, which is just about to be published by Belknap
Press. It is a fascinating story about the relationship between religion
and mathematics in the early twentieth century. In our next seminar,
announced below, the two authors will present talks based on their book. As
usual, there will be ample opportunity for questions and discussion after
the talks. I look forward to seeing you all to this special event.

Best wishes,
Finn Aaserud
Niels Bohr Archive
History of Science Seminar

Friday 3 April 2009, 14.15
Aud. M, Niels Bohr Institute
Blegdamsvej 17, Copenhagen

Loren Graham, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A.
Jean-Michel Kantor, Institut de Mathématiques de Jussieu, Paris, France

A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity

This story combines mathematics and religious heresy, a tale in which
Russian mathematicians who were religious mystics (Dmitri Egorov, Nikolai
Luzin) triumphed over French mathematicians (Émile Borel, René Baire, Henri
Lebesgue) who were secular rationalists. In the early twentieth century
mathematicians, following the work of Georg Cantor in set theory, faced a
major problem: it was possible to conceive of sets of infinite numbers, sets
which resisted rigorous definitions. But was it mathematically sound to work
with such sets? Two groups of mathematicians intensively studied this
question, the French in Paris and the Russians in Moscow. The French,
rigorous rationalists, doubted that such sets were justified; the Russians,
religious heretics emboldened by their faith, freely created such sets. The
Russians noted that they could not give a definition of either "God" or
their new sets, but they nonetheless had faith in the reality of both. They
answered the question "How do we know such sets of infinite numbers exist?"
in a similar way to "How do we know God exists?": "We know both exist," they
maintained, "because we can name both and treat them as real." These Russian
mathematicians were called "Name Worshippers" and were a part of a religious
heresy spreading in Russia. The French considered such an attitude mystical
nonsense, and they lost their nerve to go forward. The Russians plunged
ahead and created a new field of mathematics, establishing at the same time
the famous Moscow School of Mathematics. And they changed the face of the
mathematical world

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