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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Forgetful anecdotes in the scatterbrained science of absentmindedness

Eurekas and Euphorias he collects anecdotes about scientists, mostly famous ones of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so most of the expected names are here: 
Crick, Darwin, Einstein, Feynman, Haldane, Kelvin, Pasteur, Pauling and many others, including, from earlier centuries, Aristotle, Newton and Pythagoras.

Eurekas and Euphorias will confirm all they thought they knew about crazy scientists with their heads in the clouds. 
Did not Plato write about Thales of Miletus, philosopher and mathematician, who fell into a well while gazing at the sky. 

The mathematician Norbert Wiener illustrates the idea. 
He "was noted for his absence of mind". 
Once he was lost after moving house, and, "accosting a small girl who was approaching in the opposite direction, he inquired whether she might not be able to direct towards Brattle Street. The child giggled: 'Yes daddy', she said, 'I'll take you home.'"
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“Geometry is the science of correct reasoning on incorrect figures.”
"Theories are lies that help us to see the truth"

Absent Minded Professor Stories

It’s hard to tell from the evidence if scientists (all trades of the game: physicists, geneticists, matematicians, and so on) were absent minded, many of the stories told about them could be fabrications to perpetuate that stereotype, but nevertheless some of them are true. 

People who tried to do mathematics in the past risked being killed in war, dying from accidents, wandering off and getting lost, falling off cliffs, and so forth. 
1. Witold Hurewicz was a mathematician noted for work in topology and being distracted.

While on the faculty at MIT he once gave a colloquium lecture at Penn State. Several colleagues from Boston schools decided to attend the talk and they took the train to Pennsylvania for the lecture. Afterward, as usual, they went to dinner had a nice discussion, then all boarded the train and returned to Boston. Hurewicz could not find his car at the train station. So he reported it stolen.
A few days later the police called and said that they had located his car. It was in a parking garage in .............. Philadelphia (500 km away!!).

2.  Guess who?
Someone called  and asked for his address. When the receptionist said that she was unable to give out that information, the caller admitted that he was Einstein and had forgotten where he lived.
  (quoted in one Einstein's biography, confirmed by the university at which Einstein was working at the time)

3. Norbert Wiener  (mathematician - earned  his BA  and his PhD at 14 and 18, respectively)

Wiener once reported the theft of his car to the police, only to discover that he had driven it to Providence for a talk and taken the train back; the conversation in an MIT hallway that he concluded by asking his interlocutor which way he had been heading when he stopped to chat, greeting the answer with “Good! That means I’ve already had lunch.”
Professor Jay Ball, recalled sitting at a Cambridge coffee shop with a Chinese friend and inviting Wiener to join their table. Wiener addressed the friend in fluent Mandarin, but the friend turned out to speak only Cantonese. So Wiener simply switched dialects. “My father spoke 17 languages fluently,” he told them, “but I’m a dope. I can only speak 12.”

4. Paul Erdös is portrayed as a hilarious mathematical genius.  Essentially homeless and jobless, he was so absent minded that...
... Bell Laboratories kept track of his expenses and paid his bills as he traversed the globe lecturing and proving theorems. 

on a Saturday morning, a cold Saturday morning in November, were walking around the Bowl when Lightbody’s car was parked outside the library. And his young daughter was in it. And she was crying and obviously cold and upset. And her dad had gone into the library to pick up something. We went into the library and found him engrossed, totally oblivious to the fact that he’d left his little daughter out in the car on a cold November day.

6. E. L. Harrington, a professor of physics (1920–52)
He would bring his wife up to the university and, at least on one occasion, he asked her to wait in the office while he did something else. Then he went out the back door to where his car was parked and drove away home. Left her sitting there. After a couple of hours she got a little bit worried and phoned home. It was a very—that guy, he wasn’t profane—he wouldn’t say, “Oh, my God,” or anything like that. He’d say some mild expletive: “Did I do that again?” And often he would.

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