October 4, 2005

Harriet Miers as the new entry on the list of nonmathematician math majors.

Here's a good list for reference. How does the interest in and aptitude for math affect how one behaves in non-mathematical aspects of life? Think of what math may have had to do with the accomplishments of these folks (and go to the link for the full list, compiled by Steven G. Buyske):
Ralph Abernathy, civil rights leader and Martin Luther King's closest aide.

Harry Blackmun, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, AB summa cum laude in mathematics at Harvard.

David Dinkins, Mayor of New York, BA in mathematics from Howard.

Florence Nightingale, pioneer in professional nursing. She was the first person in the English-speaking world to apply statistics to public health. She was also a pioneer in the graphic representation of statistics; the pie-chart was her invention, for example. Not really a math major, she was privately educated, but pursued mathematics far beyond contemporary standards for women.

Laurence H. Tribe, Professor at Harvard Law School, often regarded as one of the great contemporary authorities on Constitutional Law. An AB summa cum laude in mathematics from Harvard.

Leon Trotsky, revolutionary. He began to study Pure mathematics at Odessa in 1897, but imprisonment and exile in Siberia seem to have ended his mathematical efforts.

Art Garfunkel, folk-rock singer. MA in mathematics from Columbia in 1967. Worked on a PhD at Columbia, but chose to pursue his musical career instead.

Phillip Glass , composer, a Bachelor's from the University of Chicago.

Carole King , Sixties songwriter, and later a singer-songwriter. She dropped out after one year of college to pursue her music career.

Tom Lehrer , songwriter-parodist. PhD student in mathematics at Harvard.

Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass , and other works. A ringer: he was a logician under his real name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

Heloise (Ponce Cruse Evans), of Hints from Heloise . She minored in math.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn , Nobel prize-winning novelist, a degree in mathematics and physics from the University of Rostov.

Bram Stoker , author of Dracula, took honors at Trinity University, Dublin.

Ted Kaczinski, PhD in mathematics from University of Michigan. Kaczinski worked at UC Berkeley for some time and published papers in complex variables before retreating to the woods and becoming the infamous "unabomber."
Can we get an op-ed from Larry Tribe on the subject? Or maybe you readers can speculate in the comments.

I'll just say that I expect the Senate Democrats to use the math background as they grill Miers about whether she's got a heart -- a subject they pestered John Roberts about. I expect them to heart-grill Harriet even more. She's supposed to represent women -- O'Connor did! -- so where are her feelings? She never married! She has no children! She majored in math! Will they dare take the tack that she's not a proper member of the group she's supposed to represent? You know they are thinking about it.

I just want to say that I'm standing here waiting for every misstep in that direction, and I intend to slam them for it -- from over here in my little outpost in the blogosphere.


Isaac said...

Studying math definitely changes the way you think. Your thought becomes much more rigorous and disciplined. Not that other subjects don't demand such traits, but it's possible to slide by without gaining those skills (take it from a math major who thought he was smart, and then started studying real math and discovered the truth).

In non-math classes it has made me desire precision and clarity. And I'm much better at parsing arguments (though still not good at it).

Politically it can push you to certainty because you believe in the absolute truth; or else it can introduce humility.

Other famous non-mathematician math majors:
Todd Gitlin: AB from Harvard in math.

Tammy Baldwin: BA from Smith in mathematics and political science.

Jacob said...

Tom Lehrer is a mathematician. He teaches math at Santa Cruz. He had a brief period in his life where he wrote and performed songs but then went back to the academy (where he could make, "Oh $3000 a year just teaching")

Simon said...

What auspicious company for a Republican nominee to the Supreme Court: Larry Tribe, Leon Trotsky and Harry Blackmun. Along with Harry Reid's endorsement, I'm sold!

Pastor_Jeff said...


Perhaps the math thread is the place to ask:

How is your progress with Schrödinger's Squirrel?

tommy said...

I think one of the biggest differences to a math background as opposed to others is the ability to change problems simply by resetting the original definitions. To be good at it you have to be disciplined in logically following and applying those definitions to get the answer.

To me, it seems somewhat similar to reading the constitution and following it to a logical answer. If you don't like the answer, then you need some sort of legislative remedy.

The Exalted said...

Rather than cry about your silly and unfounded speculation as to what those nasty democrats will ask, why don't you blog about your own thoughts about Meier's qualifications to join the United States Supreme Court?

It took you about 10 seconds to deem John Roberts the perfect nominee -- yet now, rather than look at her credentials, you blather on about her college major and hoist it up as yet another strawman.


Ann Althouse said...

The Exalted: I have about 20 posts on her. Why don't you read some of the others? This post is on a subject that interests me. If you don't like it, tough!

The Exalted said...

i did look through your other posts, at least on your front page, and they are all other people's thoughts on her qualifications (you do make a good point about the greyness of the abortion debate which gets ignored)

i have no business getting in the way of your interest into where math majors find their ends, but your speculation about democratic attacks on her college major is the very definition of a strawman

Mark the Pundit said...

But you left out Michael Jordan! He studied mathematics at North Carolina.

Brando said...

Ann, I have been reading your blog for a while and you pretty much put up comments on commentary. This post is especially bogus and inflammatory in that you comment and cast dispersions on Senate Democrats for things they haven’t said or implied. What is up with that?

I'd have more respect for you and your blog if you actually said something substantial for a change. I challenge you to reference anywhere where you have make a thoughtful, reasoned defense of why you think Miers is or is not a good pick.

Here i will help you:

"I think Miers is a good/bad pick for the Supreme Court because"...

I will eat my words if you can show me 1 of the purported 20 post where you finish that sentence in any coherent, well-reasoned way.

EddieP said...

Maybe exalted should look into grammar. Or, maybe his shift key is broken.

Troy said...

I don't know about the math thing, but everytime I hear her name "Harriet" I think of the poem "Harriet, Sweet Harriet"from "So I Married An Axe Murderer."

Hmmm... and it was written by Mike "Myers". Maybe there's something mathematical here somewhere.

F said...

In judicial terms I'm not sure that a maths background is necessarily irrelevant. As Isaac rightly says the discipline of maths relies on relatively formal rules without flexibility of application - it's a scientific discipline and therefore focuses on absolutes. Law is not, however, a science: it's human and social and political and (by necessity) flexible. I'm thinking here in particular of people like Kelsen and Professor Hart.

It's important, however, to remember that Miers is not 'just' a mathematician. She may have an undergrad in mathematics but she has a lifetime of professional experience in law, where I'm sure her skills of logic were useful but so too her understanding of the practical and human face of legal practice and this would, I imagine, have mitigated this overtly scientific method of reasoning.

As for Mier's femininity...it's so obvious that there will be backdoor bitching about whether or not she's a 'real woman': she doesn't look soft and loving and caring, she doesn't have a family of 'her own' and presumably there'll be some under-the-breath speculation about her being a lesbian (if Hilary can't escape it I don't see why she should).

And the idea that she should represent women is ridiculous....she should represent justice. I don't doubt there'll be some who are difficult to convince on that front though

Christy said...

With math one can almost always reach an indisputably right answer. And one can easily demonstrate when an answer is wrong. Ain't that way in life, law, or politics, is it?

Ann Althouse said...

I simply don't know enough about Miers to take a position. I'm waiting to hear what she has to say!

I'll speculate as I see fit about what the Democrats have a propensity to do. I watched a lot of the Roberts hearings, and I base my speculation on that and other things. Since it's phrased as speculation, what's the problem? Maybe I can influence them not to do these things.

Mark: I didn't want to reprint the whole thing. I took the ones that interested me. Michael Jordan's interest in math went as far as having a major which he then dropped. Didn't seem to mark him as enough of a math person. Also his accomplishments are in athletics, so it doesn't relate to the qualities of mind that I'm trying to get at. But I'm sure you could look at the full list and my edited list and draw conclusions about me.

John said...

Paul Wolfowitz majored in math at Cornell; his father was a mathematics professor there.

XWL said...

Oh, now you got me started. Success in athletics is as much, if not more so, about qualities of mind as they are about physicality.

The young Michael Jordan had amazing physical gifts the likes of which are rarely seen, and the Bulls made barely a dent in the playoffs.

As he aged and his physical gifts dwindled he dominated even more, Why?

Because of his intelligence, drive, and a system that suited his and his supporting players talents. No player has utilized the triangle offense better than he and that offense is based in part on geometric relationships and a calculus bred utilization of variable strategies in the face of differing circumstances.

Mathematical literacy doesn't automatically make it possible to play in the triangle well, but the ability to see the abstract Xs and Os as presented by Tex Winter and then apply them to the court surely was helped by his native interest in mathematics, so though he didn't get a degree I am certain he benefitted greatly from his comfort level with applying the abstract to the concrete which superior math literacy lends a person.

Now, as far as Harriet Miers goes, the Constitution is an abstract of sorts and the job of the Justices is to apply that abstract to the concrete realities of the world with the assumption that they will do so in the least subjective manner possible. If we are to believe what the President says then we can expect a Justice Miers to follow that assumption and apply reason rather than politics to her decisions.

Pastor_Jeff said...


I had never thought of it in those terms, but I couldn't agree more re: mental awareness, math and sports.

Whether it's tennis, football, basketball, soccer or what have you, the spatial dynamics and the ability to anticipate the flow of motion are very mathematical. It's almost chess-like, only more so.

There is a definite mathematical beauty and mental sharpness to well-played sport. Thank you for your comments - that was a real "A-ha" moment for me.

downtownlad said...

Yes, math majors excel at all areas of life. I can vouch for that, since I was a math major too.

SippicanCottage said...

Hey Ann, stop casting dispersions...

Is Norm Crosby posting here now?

Bruce Hayden said...


We can finally agree on something. Ditto for me.

I pointed this out earlier in one of Ann's threads, but I see a mathematics background as indicia that Ms. Meirs will not turn into another Justice O'Connor based on my belief that training in mathematics would make her uncomfortable with 10 factor balancing tests and allowing racial preferences in law school admissions for 25 years, but not for 30 years, etc.

Eli Blake said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eli Blake said...

Oh, good grief.

As a Liberal, I can tell you that a lot of liberals are pretty happy with the Miers nomination. OF COURSE they will question her, that is part of the normal procedure for Supreme Court nominees. Asking a few questions, then voting for her if you are from a red state or against her if you are from a blue state, is pretty much obligatory in Washington these days.

But considering that a lot of us on the left were worried that Bush would choose someone like Alita, Luttig, Jones or McConnell, I for one am pretty satisfied with this, and it isn't just me. Yesterday, even the DNC site was talking about how good this is. And no wonder Harry Reid was beaming yesterday. As for seriously opposing her, that would be the dumbest thing that Liberals could do, since it would reopen the door for Bush to pick someone we really would feel was a terrible choice.

You can put whatever spin you want to on it, but liberals are shedding big ol' crocodile tears. Boo-hoo, she is a math major (so, for that matter, was I). But I grinned until I fell asleep last night.

Eli Blake said...

And here is a mathematical question:

What is the probability that known biological weapons agent tularemia bacteria, never before detected in the open in Washington D.C., would just happen to make its one and only appearance there on Sept. 24, the day that 100,000 anti-war protesters just happened to be in town, and it was purely a coincidence? The explanation offered by some in the administration that the people somehow 'kicked it up' is laughable-- 1) it can't get kicked up if it isn't put there in the first place, and 2) there have been occasions when far more people were walking around in Washington (Reagan's funeral or the Bush inauguration, for example).

You don't have to be paranoid to notice something this almost impossibly unlikely and question how likely it is to 'just happen.'

Ann Althouse said...

XWL: Fair enough. My nephew is a professional golfer, and I've walked the course watching him in numerous tournaments and can easily see that the mental element is key.

XWL said...

Eli there is a much simpler explanation, at the Reagan funeral it wasn't a bunch of dirty hippies running around.

Who knows what pestilences are stored in the beards and underarm hair of long term committed flower children (or more accurately flower-grandparents?).

and speaking of numbers I thought it was 150,000 or maybe 300,000 folks showing support for Saint Cindy, remember your talking points Eli.

Jacques Cuze said...

As the list shows, being a nonmathematician math major or being good in athletics is essentially only possible with a fine conservative mind and body.

All of those "mathematics artists" and "artists on the playing field" are feigning liberalism in order to get ahead with their colleagues. To get tenure, or to get that next contract with the Knicks or Nike. What a sad sad day our nation has come to that our nonmathematician math majors must pay fealty to liberalism in order to have a career.

downtownlad said...

No Bruce - I suspect we have more in common that that.

I'm pro-life, pro death-penalty, in favor of lower taxes, less regulation, less government spending, pro-war.

Basically - I don't like the government in my bedroom or my pocketbook. I make an exception for abortion - because I think there is another life involved.

Eli Blake said...


First, according to Chief Ramsey of the Washington police, he said that 'they were aiming for 100,000, I think they hit that. Where do you get 300,000?

Second, no matter how unwashed someone is (and I know people who went to that rally, and they are not unwashed, as you would choose to believe), they don't have biological weapons grade bacteria on them. Unless they are terrorists, but considering who was around at the time, if they were terrorists then clearly they were right wing terrorists (maybe why this isn't being aggressively persued). Third, if I remember right, during the Reagan funeral, not only the mall, but every foot of the route was lined with huge crowds-- certainly more than what we see here.

So, I would again ask, where did it come from? Show me a hippie with a bioweapons stash.

Pastor_Jeff said...


Glad to agree with you on all the above you mentioned, and the way you put it.

The Exalted said...

eli, news flash

no liberals are boo hooing over harriet's math major

only ms. althous strangely finds this non-issue to be of import

and only ms. althous thinks that opposition will materialize based quixotically on her undergraduate degree -- as if her complete lack of credentials and obvious toadie status were not enough

what was brownies major?

XWL said...

Nice to see you haven't lost your sense of humor Mr. Blake.

Firstly that mouthpiece for the GOP the Washington Post in an article on Oct 2nd put forth the claim that the most likely source of the sensor detections were of a different kind of tularemia from the weaponized version (thing about sensors is that they don't always differentiate, better false positives then no detection at all). There is NO evidence and NOONE has made a credible claim that there was a release of weaponized tularemia, and had there been mass deaths would have likely already began, the weaponized version claims a 30-60% death rate with incubation times between 6-14 days (and after 8 days deaths and symptoms should already be appearing in a large amount of people if the exposure was of the aerosolized bio-weapon).

Now as far as the 300,000 on the homepage for internationalanswer.org, which organized this protest and therefore MUST be the most honest people with concern to the count of protesters, they claim MORE than 300,000 were in DC.

(and if you hadn't figured out by now placing the modifier HONEST on the International A.N.S.W.E.R. group is an example of extreme sarcasm).

Oh and there is a big difference between the kind of disturbance caused by crowds lining the boulevards of DC and crowds stomping throughout the grassy areas of the mall across an entire day, and another difference was that Pres. Reagan's funeral was in early summer when the turf would have been at it's most resilient whereas the protest was early fall when the turf would be far less capable of withstanding a pounding.

Now please, pick away, pick away, I'm sure everything I just wrote was wrong somehow.

Eli Blake said...


Read my post again. I said that Liberals are shedding crocodile tears.

I blogged on the Miers appointment yesterday on my blog. What I said was that we on the left had dodged a bullet, and that clearly this was an appointment that was designed to avoid a confirmation fight.

There will be the obligatory tap dance, as there was around Roberts, but in fact, I believe that you will find far less opposition to her appointment from the left than from the right. They wanted what we feared-- a hard core conservative like Michael Luttig, Edith Jones or Samuel Alito, which would have forced a filibuster and possibly the 'nuclear' option to force through a fifth conservative vote on abortion and other issues.

Since it didn't happen, I think you will find that Democrats will pretty much give her a cream puff hearing.

The worst thing that Democrats could do would be to oppose Miers and be successful-- then we might be stuck with a Luttig or a McConnell. And we are smarter than that.

Eli Blake said...


I know better than to ever rely on the organizers of a protest for a crowd count. However, since they originally asked for 100,000, the comment by the Washington police chief (who I do consider a reliable source of information) to that effect is impressive enough.

As to the likelihood that the sensor registered a false positive I will for the moment take your word on it (I will check out the Oct. 2 version of the Post later). On the other hand, there have no such positives in the past.

Reagan's funeral was in the summer. And the Bush inaugural was in the winter. That covers most of the year.

What else are you going to claim? That the tennis shoes, flip flops and birkenstocks that Democrats wear to protests pick up more dust and stuff from the ground than cowboy boots, wingtips and high heels worn by conservatives?

My point was this: the probability of the one day there was a report (even if it was a false positive) being on exactly the day of the anti-war demonstration is sufficiently small, if it was due to random occurance, that someone has to consider alternative hypotheses.