“Mathematician’s Apology” Part 1

G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology


I must have read the back cover of A Mathematician’s Apology by G.H. Hardy, before I bought it. The notes included an endorsement by Graham Green, who “hailed it alongside Henry James’s notebooks ‘as the best account of what it is like to be a creative artist’.”  I have always had a desire to be creative, which I have been satisfying lately through my watercolor sketches. But I wanted to learn more about mathematics as a creative art.

I am interested in math, based on my father’s love for the subject. He was a mathematician: an applied mathematician and theoretical physicist to be precise. I trained as an engineer, so I am no stranger to ‘useful’ math. Mathematics as a purely creative endeavor however, is a mystery to me.

Justification of existence

I was sidetracked in my search for ‘the account of what it is like to be a creative artist’ to which Graham Greene referred, when I read Hardy’s notes about justifying of one’s existence.  The opening sections of the Apology stirred up uncomfortable memories of my childhood. The first part of Hardy’s Apology is not pleasant reading for anyone who has ever had feelings of low self esteem.

Hardy noted that people who ‘set out to justify [their] existence’ must address two questions: 1) Is their work worthy? 2) What is the reason for doing the work?  The answers, he said, take one of two forms: “1) I do what I do because it is the one and only thing that I can do at all well.”  He goes on to say that not many people can say this because “most people can do nothing at all well. … Perhaps 5 or even 10 percent of men can do something rather well. It is a tiny minority who can do anything really well…” (G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2005. pg 67)

Hardy calls the second form of the answer, ‘a humbler variation of the first’, and bears repeating in its entirety: “(2) There is nothing that I can do particularly well. I do what I do because it came my way. I really never had a chance of doing anything else.’ And this apology too I accept as conclusive. It is quite true that most people can do nothing well. If so, it matters very little what career they choose, and there is really nothing more to say about it. It is a conclusive reply, but hardly one likely to be made by a man with any pride; and I may assume that none of us would be content with it.” (Ibid pg. 73)


I don’t know if all adolescents question their existence, but I did. I was rife with doubts about myself as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. Echoes of that discomfort still resound from time to time.

However, I must put these feelings aside and read further, with the hope of discovering what Hardy had to say about creativity.

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