51
$\begingroup$

First of all, sorry if this post is not appropriate for this forum.

I have a habit that every time I read a beautiful article I look at the author's homepage and often find amazing things.

Recently I read a paper of Andrew Hicks and when I opened his homepage I found many links about his invention: Flawless wing mirrors (car mirror).

enter image description here (Image Source)

I would not be surprised if this invention was made by a non-mathematician. His mirror is an amazing invention to me because every day I see it, but didn't know its inventor is a mathematician! Anyway, I want to ask

Question 1: Are there mathematicians who have done outstanding/prominent non-mathematical work like inventions, patents, solving social/economical/etc. problems, papers in these areas, etc.?

Of course, one can say that almost all technology nowadays is based on the work of mathematicians, but I'm asking for specific contributions/innovations.

I want to ask a similar question (Maybe it will be useful for those who are looking for a job!):

Question 2: Which mathematicians are working in non-mathematical areas/companies?

Note: Please add to your answers the name and the work of the mathematician.

$\endgroup$
22
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ (should probably be CW, as with most big-list questions) $\endgroup$ – Noam D. Elkies Aug 20 '20 at 15:11
  • 64
    $\begingroup$ Unabomber has to be #1 on this list. $\endgroup$ – Piyush Grover Aug 20 '20 at 15:26
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ Not clear if it fits, but Emanuel Lasker was a Chess World Champion and a mathematician. I understand that he proved some important results in Commutative Algebra. $\endgroup$ – Nick S Aug 20 '20 at 15:42
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ A good question here would need good delineation of "mathematician" and of "non-mathematical work". In the absence of that, I find this vague and I've downvoted $\endgroup$ – Matt F. Aug 20 '20 at 17:32
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ The question is too vague. Before 18 century, all mathematicians had non-mathematical jobs since there were no mathematical jobs.So probably you mean modern times. It is also not clear who exactly is counted as a mathematician. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Aug 20 '20 at 23:24

73 Answers 73

10
$\begingroup$

Gian-Carlo Rota in addition to being an influential combinatorialist was a philosopher, and his philosophical writing was not in the tradition often thought of as being closest to math ('analytic philosophy') but was rather inspired by phenomenology. Apparently this heterodoxy caused some consternation from e.g. his colleagues in the philosophy department at MIT.

$\endgroup$
10
$\begingroup$

Another politician would be Éamon de Valera, who graduated in mathematics and taught at various schools (and applied for a professorship, but without success), but then became a rather influential Irish politician.

$\endgroup$
10
$\begingroup$

Emily Riehl is a professor of mathematics at Johns Hopkins. She does transformative work in abstract homotopy theory, and has won many grants. She is also a professional Australian rules football player.

$\endgroup$
10
$\begingroup$

Alexander Esenin-Volpin was a mathematician well-known for his work as a Soviet political dissident.

EDIT: I'm sorry for writing the above so glibly. Among other things, Esenin-Volpin was repeatedly imprisoned or else confined to mental institutions for political reasons -- according to wikipedia he spent 6 years cumulatively in either of those situations. I'd love if somebody more competent than I would write something more informative and fitting.

$\endgroup$
4
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The same can be said about Shafarevich too $\endgroup$ – მამუკა ჯიბლაძე Aug 20 '20 at 20:54
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Can't resist mentioning a non-answer to the question: someone prominent for non-mathematical work who was a maths+physics student at university: nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1970/solzhenitsyn/biographical $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 22 '20 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ There was a gulf of difference between Esenin-Volpin and Schafarevich; it'd be simpler to remember Schafarewich as an outstanding mathematician and let's mercifully forget about the rest of his story. $\endgroup$ – Wlod AA Nov 27 '20 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ @WlodAA I did not say that they are similar in any other respect, except that "was a mathematician well-known for his work as a Soviet political dissident" applies to both; maybe it'd be also simpler to remember only part of what we happen to remember, so let's mercifully forget about the rest of it? $\endgroup$ – მამუკა ჯიბლაძე Nov 28 '20 at 20:08
8
$\begingroup$

Jerry McNerney (Wiki page) is a US congressperson from California, with a PhD in differential geometry.

Nowadays he's more known as a congressman than as a mathematician, but every now and then he will give quick floor speeches about math or mathematicians.

See, e.g., his tribute to Mirzakhani.

$\endgroup$
8
$\begingroup$

Dutch mathematician Alexander Rinnooy Kan is also a politician and businessman. He used to be a member of the board of directors of ING Group, served as the Chairman of the Social and Economic Council that advises the government, and was a member of the senate.

According to a national newspaper, he was the most influential person in the Netherlands in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

$\endgroup$
8
$\begingroup$

René Descartes

Mathematically you're likely to know him for Cartesian geometry.

Philosophers will know him for "Cogito, ergo sum"/"Je pense, donc je suis"

Quoting wikipedia: "Descartes is also widely regarded as one of the founders of modern philosophy." I suspect, as with Russell, people might argue Descartes was a philosopher who did a little mathematics, but ignoring the eponym of Cartesian coordinates is too hard to do.

$\endgroup$
3
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Rene Descartes walks into a bar and orders a drink. When he finishes his drink, the bartender asks him if he would like another. Descartes replies, “No, I think not,” and disappears in a puff of logic. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Aug 22 '20 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ I think Descartes did more than "a little" Mathematics $\endgroup$ – Geoff Robinson Aug 22 '20 at 9:38
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, I was just attempting to preempt similar comments to the Bertrand Russell (mathoverflow.net/a/369713/164087) answer. $\endgroup$ – Anon1759 Aug 22 '20 at 13:53
8
$\begingroup$

Alexander Grothendieck was a political activist and spiritualist.

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ this is what I was looking for $\endgroup$ – HLEE Sep 2 '20 at 3:02
8
$\begingroup$

Raymond Smullyan was a

mathematician, magician, concert pianist, logician, Taoist, and philosopher.

$\endgroup$
7
$\begingroup$

Claude Elwood Shannon was also an inventor. I recall he also invented a rocket-powered pair of boots, but I cannot seem to find the source anymore.

$\endgroup$
7
$\begingroup$

Tony Scholl is also a bassist with the Cambridge Philharmonic.

$\endgroup$
7
$\begingroup$

Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor of the Colombian city of Medellín, wrote a dozen papers in model theory before switching to politics.

$\endgroup$
6
$\begingroup$

I've seen a couple of mentions of Emanuel Lasker, a former world chess champion. Here's his non-mathematical academic works, which include a play "History of Mankind" cowritten with his brother:

Kampf (Struggle), 1906. Das Begreifen der Welt (Comprehending the World), 1913. Die Philosophie des Unvollendbar (sic; The Philosophy of the Unattainable), 1918. Vom Menschen die Geschichte ("History of Mankind"), 1925 – a play, co-written with his brother Berthold. The Community of the Future, 1940.

In his "Kampf" he foresaw the application of game theory in 20th century social sciences. He also wrote on other games besides chess as well. Here's a list of those books.

Encyclopedia of Games, 1929. Das verständige Kartenspiel (Sensible Card Play), 1929 – English translation published in the same year. Brettspiele der Völker (Board Games of the Nations), 1931 – includes sections about Go and Lasca. Das Bridgespiel ("The Game of Bridge"), 1931.

Also, don't forget Max Euwe. Max Euwe was also world chess champion and president of FIDE (the international chess body). Dr. Euwe wrote on the Thue-Morse sequence and it implying that, according to the rules of chess at the time, a game could be played as an infinite game without resolution under certain circumstances. He taught mathematics at one point and was a professor of computer science at the Universities of Rotterdam and Tillberg.

$\endgroup$
3
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I read somewhere that Max Euwe won some kind of amateur boxing title. Is that true? $\endgroup$ – bof Aug 24 '20 at 1:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ members.tripod.com/HSK_Chess/euwe.html I'd never heard of this before, but it is true. The link is confirmation. He also didn't play chess professionally, but still won the world championship. $\endgroup$ – Paul Burchett Aug 24 '20 at 2:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It was the amateur boxing championship of Europe that Euwe won. I don't have a year though. $\endgroup$ – Paul Burchett Aug 24 '20 at 2:14
6
$\begingroup$

Daniel Biss received his PhD in mathematics at MIT in 2002, then was an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago until 2008. He won the 1999 Morgan Prize for outstanding research as an undergraduate. However, in 2007, a serious flaw was discovered that destroyed the main results of papers he had published in the Annals of Mathematics and in Advances. He is now a State Senator in Illinois. In this position, he has worked on legislation to "allow for automatic voter registration," to "elect a number of statewide offices by ranked-choice ballot," and on healthcare, among other things.

$\endgroup$
5
$\begingroup$

Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oligarch and government official, was a professional mathematician.

$\endgroup$
5
$\begingroup$

Merely meant as an interesting and amusing fact. People are not born as mathematicians. At the age of 14, long time before his mathematical career and winning the Fields medal, Wendelin Werner played a role in 'The Passerby' at the side of Romy Schneider. She died a few weeks after the movie premiere.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ "People are not born as mathematicians." -- Some do. $\endgroup$ – Wlod AA Nov 27 '20 at 19:41
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ We disagree. That's fine. $\endgroup$ – Tobsn Nov 28 '20 at 9:51
5
$\begingroup$

Ruggero Freddi is an Italian mathematics lecturer (holding a PhD) and a former gay pornographic film actor known professionally as Carlo Masi. Here you can read his thesis.

$\endgroup$
15
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @C.F.G I really think that your question is educative and deserve to stay so I will not vote to close. Your question is a place to see that one can become mathematician from other interests and can be a mathematician and something else. However, I think that having a gay porn actor in this wiki is problematic for you. I really hope that you explain yourself better. Your downvote and your comment have not being correctly justified yet and I wish that the problem does not relate to the fact that he is gay or porn actor (sadly I think that it does). It is pretty sad seeing this mentality here. $\endgroup$ – Hvjurthuk Nov 25 '20 at 14:36
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This reminds me that Catalan mathematician and logician Angel García-Cerdaña (Cerdanya) is also a known TV actor. Am I to understand that for some reason he does not qualify for this question either? $\endgroup$ – Emil Jeřábek Nov 25 '20 at 14:39
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @EmilJeřábek Sadly, I think that "being gay" and "appearing naked in TV" is the real problem here. $\endgroup$ – Hvjurthuk Nov 25 '20 at 14:40
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ It's hard to interpret the downvotes on this answer as anything other than narrow-minded prejudice. Would it have been downvoted if Freddi had been a Shakespearean stage actor? $\endgroup$ – Tom Leinster Nov 25 '20 at 15:24
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ There are other people listed who did much of their non-mathematical work before they became mathematicians. This includes Persi Diaconis, Danica McKellar, and Frank Ryan $\endgroup$ – Deane Yang Nov 25 '20 at 15:36
4
$\begingroup$

Art Benjamin is a professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, with more than 100 publications. He is also an accomplished magician and was the 1997 American Backgammon Tour Player of the Year.

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

Alan Turing is a mathematician famous for his contributions to the foundations of computer science, for being a codebreaker in WW2, and for being persecuted by the UK government for being homosexual. Readers have probably heard of the Turing test in artificial intelligence. I would argue that his contributions to computer science don't count as "non-mathematical work" but that his contributions to biology do. For example, his paper The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis is highly cited and is the reason the name "Turing patterns" is used to describe zebrafish embryos.

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

Hans Freudenthal was a famous topologist. Indeed, the Freudenthal suspension theorem is the foundational result you need to get stable homotopy theory off the ground. He also invented a language, Lincos, "to make possible communication with extraterrestrial intelligence." And he invented a famous puzzle. And an asteroid is named after him.

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ The famous puzzle looks pretty mathematical (though not topological) itself. $\endgroup$ – Fedor Petrov Sep 15 '20 at 9:38
4
$\begingroup$

Patrick Billingsley, author of two well-known books in probability theory, was also a stage and screen actor.

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ Whoa. [Preston & Logan, 1989] $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Sep 16 '20 at 21:19
4
$\begingroup$

Danica McKellar may not qualify as a mathematician, but (all quotes below are from Wikipedia)

McKellar studied at the University of California, Los Angeles where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree summa cum laude in Mathematics in 1998. As an undergraduate, she coauthored a scientific paper with Professor Lincoln Chayes and fellow student Brandy Winn titled "Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin–Teller models on ${\bf Z}^2$." Their results are termed the "Chayes–McKellar–Winn theorem". Later, when Chayes was asked to comment about the mathematical abilities of his student coauthors, he was quoted in The New York Times, "I thought that the two were really, really first-rate." For her past collaborative work on research papers, McKellar is currently assigned the Erdős number four, and her Erdős–Bacon number is six.

Also, she

wrote six non-fiction books, all dealing with mathematics: Math Doesn't Suck, Kiss My Math, Hot X: Algebra Exposed, Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape, which encourage middle-school and high-school girls to have confidence and succeed in mathematics, Goodnight, Numbers, and Do Not Open This Math Book.

Her acting career, in brief:

She played Winnie Cooper in the television series The Wonder Years from 1988–1993, and since 2010 has voiced Miss Martian in the animated superhero series Young Justice.

In 2015, McKellar was cast in the Netflix original series Project Mc2. She appears in several television films for Hallmark Channel. She is the current voice of Judy Jetson from The Jetsons since 2017 following Janet Waldo's death in 2016.

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

The numerical analyst, Manil Suri, is also an accomplished novelist. He has written a trilogy of novels. The first of which, The Death of Vishnu, was long listed for the Booker Prize.

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand why this is down voted. He's a quite accomplished mathematician (scholar.google.com/…) and an award winning novelist. Seems to fit well. $\endgroup$ – Zachary Hamaker Oct 27 '20 at 20:39
4
$\begingroup$

Although John Urschel is already mentioned in a comment to the answer about Frank Ryan, I think he deserves his own answer. Urschel was a football player first at Penn State and then with the Baltimore Ravens. He majored in math at Penn State and then, allegedly without the knowledge of the Baltimore Ravens, enrolled in the MIT math PhD program. Urschel will receive his PhD in spring 2021 and already has an impressive list of publications

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ He wasn't a mathematician before or during playing football? $\endgroup$ – C.F.G Nov 25 '20 at 17:36
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Based on the years of his publications, it appears that he did write research math papers while he was playing football at Penn State and then for the Baltimore Ravens. Given the physical and mental energy, as well as the time needed each week to prepare for a football game, this is quite remarkable. $\endgroup$ – Deane Yang Nov 25 '20 at 18:34
3
$\begingroup$

Nasīr al-Dīn al-Tūsī was a persian polymath of thirteenth century. His contribution to trigonometry includes the plane law of sines. He had a prominent place in the court of Hulagu Khan (a grandson of Genghis Khan and the founder of the Ilkhanate Empire), and benefited from Khan's patronage to found the Maragheh Observatory. The legend even has it that he was influential in persuading Hulagu to siege Baghdad in 1258 which ended the 500 years old Abbasid Caliphate.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Baruch Spinoza was a mathematician, philosopher, and physicist "involved in important optical investigations of the day." His masterpiece, The Ethics, is "written with a forbidding mathematical structure modeled on Euclid's geometry." He was an early Enlightenment thinker of the Dutch Golden Age.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Gunnar Carlsson is a professor at Stanford famous for his work in K-theory, and on the Segal Conjecture in homotopy theory. He is also the President and Founder of the company Ayasdi, described as

A machine intelligence software company that offers a software platform and applications to organizations looking to analyze and build predictive models using big data or highly dimensional data sets. Organizations and governments have deployed Ayasdi's software across a variety of use cases including the development of clinical pathways for hospitals, anti-money laundering, fraud detection, trading strategies, customer segmentation, oil and gas well development, drug development, disease research, information security, anomaly detection, and national security applications.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Per Enflo is famous for solving Banach's basis problem, Grothendieck's approximation problem, and the invariant subspace problem for general Banach spaces, and has other fundamental research in linear and non linear geometric functional analysis. He also has done research in population dynamics. A child prodigy as a pianist, he continues to give concerts in Europe and the United States, but you can hear him at home by creating a Per Enflo station on Spotify.

$\endgroup$
1
3
$\begingroup$

The book by French mathematician Jacques Hadamard, The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field. The book discusses the four stages of thought:

  1. Preparation (conscious work setting up the problem and trying to solve it)

  2. Incubation (no conscious work on the problem)

  3. Illumination (the fruits of incubation where an insight is received) and finally

  4. Verification (consciously testing and verifying the insight)

Gromov's Ergobrain Program for Universal learning program:

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Not so prominent I think but I'd like to mention that the MathTime Professional 2 (MTPro2) fonts were designed by Michael Spivak of Publish or Perish Inc. see here.

$\endgroup$

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.