The Horrible Ways Mathematicians Have Died

The Horrible Ways Mathematicians Have Died
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Perhaps it was out of morbid fascination, or maybe a simple desire to memorialize lives lost, but whatever the reason, Kellen Myers decided to make a list of mathematicians who died in "unpleasant" ways.

A mathematician himself and a PhD student at Rutgers University, Myers admits he's not sure why he compiled the macabre list in the first place.

"The purpose of this list is not clear, but it is perhaps an attempt to compile a relatively complete list," he mused.

Regardless, the list has garnered wide attention. Myers says it's by far the most popular page on his humble Rutgers homepage, which also displays the papers he's published and his office hours.

The list's focus is grotesquely fascinating, to be sure. Who wouldn't be at least slightly interested in the tragic story of Pavel Urysohn? At age 24, he was already an assistant professor at Moscow University and had made significant contributions to topology, the study of shapes and spaces. Two years later, he drowned while swimming off the coast of France.

Or what about Austrian American mathematician Kurt Gödel? Considered by some to be just as influential a logician and philosopher as Aristotle, he sadly succumbed to crippling paranoia later in life. In his sixties, he became convinced that his food was being poisoned, and would only trust the cooking of his wife Adele. When she was hospitalized for six months in 1977, Gödel refused to eat, and subsequently died of starvation.

Of the nineteen mathematicians on Myers' list, four were killed or murdered, three committed suicide, two starved to death, one succumbed to jaundice, and one even died of a parasitic liver infection.

That mathematician was Srinivasa Ramanujan. Perhaps the purest definition of a prodigy, Ramanujan received almost no formal training in mathematics, and performed almost all of his research in isolation, often under conditions of extreme poverty. Ramanujan's genius wasn't truly known in the broader mathematical community until his twenties. In 1914, at the age of 26, Ramanujan trekked to Cambridge at the invitation of acclaimed British mathematician G.H. Hardy. There, he further honed his skills and continued to pour out results. In 1919, he became very sick and returned to India. He died a year later at the age of 32.

The existence of Myers' list begs the question: are mathematicians prone to die under unfortunate circumstances? Any mathematician with training in statistics will offer a quick and simple answer: almost certainly not. The list that Myers has compiled, while intriguing, is a small, biased sample, and its results cannot be ascribed to mathematicians as a group.

So if you dream of numbers, fret not. You're not destined to die in a terrible manner.

(Image: Charles F. Wilson)

Source: Mathematical Ends

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