Huntington Declares People are Coming to Realize Abstract Beauty in Mathematics--Points Out Value of the Science
In a talk broadcast from station WEAF Professor E. V. Huntington '95, of the mathematics department, hurling a mild thunderbolt into the camp of those who scoff at the numerical sciences as cold and unaesthetic, extolled the modishness and beauty of figures in the abstract.
He said that over 500 students at Harvard, largely Freshmen, elect a course in calculus every year, and that probably half a million people throughout the country have studied that branch of mathematics, adding that there were as many more who "appreciate how valuable a knowledge of the calculus would be if they had it."
Professor Huntington observed that a few decades ago only a few vallant and exceptional students "ever dared rise to such dizzy heights" as the study of differential and integral calculus, but that today the calculus is merely the starting point in college mathematics. The march of modern science has erased from the mathematical specialist the stain of being "queer".
Such a change Professor Huntington attributes to the discovery among a large and increasing number of people that higher mathematics is not only useful but lovely to look upon. Commenting in the growing usefulness of mathematics, he referred particularly to its relation to long-distance communication. "In the field of long-distance telephony," he said, "mathematics has led the way to inventions which have greatly increased the distance the voice can be carried over a wire of given size. If it were not for mathematics you could not send a long-distance message today. The development of the radio itself has been directly dependent upon mathematical-physical researches of the most advanced sort.
"Moreover, workers in chemistry, biology, geology, and even economics are coming more and more to realize that the rate of progress in these fields, under modern conditions, is directly proportional to the amount of mathematics they use."
While touching upon the value of the most recent mathematical theories on the analysis of statistical data as applied to the world of business and finance, Professor Huntington said, among other things, that "the mathematician of the future, instead of evolving silly puzzles about 'How old is Anne?' may be using higher mathematical equations to figure out the swing of the next market."
In summing up his talk he said "the first reason, then, for the changed attitude toward higher mathematics is the enormous extension of its usefulness in practical human affairs. The second reason for the new popularity of mathematics is more vital and powerful. Mathematics is not only useful; it is extremely beautiful. The beauty of a mathematical result is the fundamental motive for its pursuit. Every creative mathematician is essentially a creative artist."
Professor Huntington's talk was one of a series on science in its more popular aspects, given weekly by leading scientists under the auspices of the National Research Council Science Advisory Committee to the trustees of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair