Opinion 88: The American Mathematical Society's Ethics Committee Should Be Praised for Its Resolution to Ban Nazi Mathematicians, But It Went Too Far in "Disqualifying" Paul Erdös for using Amphetamines

By Doron Zeilberger

Written: April 1 (!) , 2008.

The conventional wisdom of most mathematicians is that mathematics is amoral. The "right" or "wrong" of mathematics is absolute and shouldn't be confused with the "right" and "wrong" of the theologian or moral philosopher. Myself I was very uneasy that such obviously bad guys like Ludwig Bi-h and Oswald Tei-r got to keep their theorems, conjectures, and even spaces. Frankly, these scums do not deserve the immortality that a named conjecture, theorem, or any concept, brings with it to its namesake.

That's why I was very happy when I just found out that the newly formed Ethics committee of the American Mathematical Society (undoubtedly an initiative of the energetic new president-elect) decided to ban, from all the publications of the Society, any mention of Nazi mathematicians. A special ad-hoc committee would soon find new names for all the theorems, conjectures, spaces, diagrams, and any other concepts that bear the names of these monsters. Until then, all authors should refrain from using the full name, but replace some of the letters by hyphens (as I did above), or at the very least, prefix "so-called", or "alleged" before. So "Teichmüller Space" (forgive my German) is no longer allowed, but "the so-called Teichmüller Space" would be allowed until further notice.

I also like the decision, that may be criticized by some conservatives as "excessively politically correct", to forbid only using "he" or only using "she". It should be replaced from now on by "he or she or it". I am particularly happy about the "it", since until now all non-human readers felt left out.

But I strongly disagree with the unfortunate decision to forbid the use of any result, or solve any open problem posed by, the great Paul Erdös, on the grounds that he was "doping" by using stimulants like amphetamines. While I definitely do not recommend anyone to start taking prescription drugs, mathematics is not (yet) the tour-de-France, and if we start forbidding them, what's next? coffee?. It is no coincidence that Erdös quipped that a mathematician is a machine that turns coffee into theorems. Without coffee (and unfortunately other stimulants) we would not have progressed beyond Euclid. Coffee is so much part of our culture that it would take much more than one committee to disallow it at AMS meetings.

So let's keep coffee and Erdös (even with his stimulants), but let's thank the AMS Ethics committee for finally banning all those N-i so-called mathematicians.

Correction (Jan. 27, 2010): David Wood pointed out that the definition of a mathematician that I attributed to Erdös is really due to Alfréd Rényi.
Opinions of Doron Zeilberger