Different people hold different views about the future of humankind, even about the next few decades. No matter what position is taken, it is not difficult to understand the concerns about the future of the human race in 1948. They are still legitimate today.
It seems to me that today we have much more evidence that we may be witnessing an eclipse of our civilization than we had in 1948. While the memories of two World Wars apparently faded, these wars are still parts of the modern history. The following decades brought to the light many other hardly encouraging phenomena. Perhaps, the highest point of our civilization occured on July 20, 1969, the day of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. While the Apollo 11 mission was almost purely symbolic, it is quite disheartening to know that nobody can reproduce this achievement today or in a near future. In fact, the US are now not able to put humans even on a low orbit and have to rely on Russian rockets. This does not mean that Russia went far ahead of the US; it means only that Russians preserved the old technologies better than Americans. Apparently, most of western countries do not believe in the technological progress anymore, and are much more willing to speak about restraining it, in contrast with the hopes of previous generations. Approximately during the same period most of arts went into a decline. This should be obvious to anybody who visited a large museum having expositions of both classical and modern arts. In particular, if one goes from expositions devoted to the classical arts to the ones representing more and more modern arts, the less people one will see, until reaching totally empty halls. It is the same in the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Mathematics is largely an art. It is a science in the sense that mathematicians are seeking truths about some things existing independently of them (almost all mathematician feel that they do not invent anything, they do discover; philosophers often disagree). It is an art in the sense that mathematician are guided mainly by esthetic criteria in choosing what is worthwhile to do. Mathematical results have to be beautiful. As G.H. Hardy said, there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics. In view of this, the lesson of the art history are quite relevant for mathematicians.
How Timothy Gowers sees the future of mathematics? He outlined his vision in an innocently entitled paper “Rough structure and classification” in a special issue “Visions in Mathematics” of “Geometric and Functional Analysis”, one of the best mathematical journals (see Geom. Funct. Anal. 2000, Special Volume, Part I, 79–117). Section 2 of this paper is entitled “Will mathematics exists in 2099?” and outlines a scenario of gradual transfer of the work of mathematicians to computers. He ends this section by the following passage.
Surely, this will be not mathematics. This prognosis of T. Gowers is even gloomier than the one which was unthinkable to A. Weil. The destiny of mathematics, as seen by Gowers, is not to be just a technique in the service of other techniques; its fate is non-existence. The service to other techniques will be provided by computers, watched over by moderately skilled professionals.“In the end, the work of the mathematician would be simply to learn how to use theorem-proving machines effectively and to find interesting applications for them. This would be a valuable skill, but it would hardly be pure mathematics as we know it today.”
We see that nowadays even mathematicians of his very high stature do not consider mathematics as necessary, and ready to sacrifice it for rather unclear goals (more about his motivation will be in the following posts). Definitely, an elimination of mathematics as a human activity will not improve the conditions of human life. It will not lead to new applications of mathematics, because for applications mathematics is not needed at all. Mathematics is distinguished from all activities relaying on it by the requirement to provide proofs of the claimed results. But proofs are not needed for any applications; heuristic arguments supported by an experiment are convincing enough. André Weil and, in fact, most of mathematicians till recently considered mathematics as an irreplaceable part of our culture. If mathematics is eliminated, then a completely different sort of human society will emerge. It is far from being clear even that the civilization will survive. But even if it will, are we going to like it?
This is the main difference between the times of André Weil and the times of Timothy Gowers. In 1948 at least mathematicians cared about the future of mathematics, in 2012 one of the most influential mathematicians declares that he does not care much about the very existence of mathematics. Timothy Gowers is not the only mathematician with such views; but nobody of his stature in the mathematical community expressed them so frankly and clearly. He is a very good writer.
Next post: The times of André Weil and the times of Timothy Gowers. 3.