PURITY

Believe me, I've nothing personal against Randall Munroe — he seems like a nice guy in every sense of the term. If I keep carping about his work, it's only because xkcd so concisely and consistently encapsulates so many things that are wrong about the nerd mindset. For an apostate like myself, this makes it a valuable resource. It's a convenient shorthand for many of nerdism's worst excesses, and a great launchpad for polemics.

Take this xkcd strip, for example, in which representatives of different scientific disciplines are ranked in terms of "purity". The sociologist (boo!) ranks at the bottom, followed by a psychologist, a biologist, and a chemist. The physicist (yay!) thinks she's at the top, only to be trumped by the mathematician matchstick man, who smugly announces that his purity is almost off the scale. (Very courageous of Randall to subvert the usual quaintly normative gender markings, by the way. To make the physicist a bald chick, and the mathematician a guy with long blonde hair — it's an inspired touch.)

From the language of the cartoon, it's clear that purity is something to aspire to. The leftward disciplines are "just applied" versions of the ones further right; the physicist announces that "it's nice to be on top"; and although the alt text raises the question of whether mathematics might be a bit too pure, it doesn't question or problematize or seek to undermine the value of purity itself. There's no way you can read this strip as a pitch for sociology. What we see here is a hierarchy of the sciences as seen by nerds, and purity is the determining factor. But what is this purity, and why do nerds value it so highly?

ROMANTICISM

Scientific purity was once something I myself highly valued. I studied computer science in the dot-com years, and it was hard not to be disgusted by the mercenaries in our midst. It was a time of rapid paper fortunes; professors and students alike could barely hide the impression that we were all in it for a fast buck. Our younger lecturers, it seemed, were just using their research careers to incubate start-ups and spin-offs; our older ones had already retired from industry, having quickly hit the jackpot, and had returned to preach the word of entrepreneurism ex-cathedra.

For romantic types such as myself, it was natural to be repelled by this. We wanted to be seminarians for science. We yearned for capital-L Learning, in an atmosphere less tainted by lucre. And so we were drawn to "pure" research, in so far as it existed in computer science: AI, logic, formal methods, the mathematics of computation. These were research areas that had so far resisted commercial appropriation: they concerned themselves with pure, beautiful truths, as eternal as the living Christ, as incorruptible as the Blessed Virgin. They weren't tainted by association with workaday reality; they dealt with realities as Platonic as our love lives inevitably turned out to be.

We yearned for heroes, and we found one in G. H. Hardy, the celebrated Cambridge mathematician who lived from 1877 to 1947, history's most eloquent and stalwart champion of scientific purity. And in Hardy's book, A Mathematician's Apology, we found a manifesto. This was a vision of a mathematician as a creative genius, a kind of transdimensional poet of proofs and theorems, channeling beautiful truths from higher aesthetic planes. In language reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, who a few decades earlier had proclaimed that "all art is useless", Hardy made the most extravagant aesthetic claims for pure mathematics:

"I have never done anything 'useful'. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world."

Taken literally, these lines seem almost offensive in their snobbery and disregard for the invested privilege of Oxbridge academics. But I think it's important not to take them too literally. Looked at in the context of Hardy's life and times, it's clear that they amount to a romantic pose.

Most editions of A Mathematician's Apology come with a biographical introduction by Hardy's friend C. P. Snow, which is longer and arguably a lot more interesting than the text it introduces. Snow paints a sympathetic portrait of a man who, at the time of writing the Apology, was something of a crushed figure. Hardy was an old man in his mathematical dotage: a spent force, a has-been who idealised the powers of his youth and the brilliant youths around him. A Mathematician's Apology is Hardy's attempt to recapture that youth, at least in spirit; for while he couldn't do maths like a young man, he could still strut like one. The book is an exercise in bravado, a last heroic gesture from a dying knight, a call to take up arms and fight on in the name of a glorious ideal: pure mathematics. It has a soundtrack by Wagner.

My peers and I responded to this stuff because we were romantics — and that's all we were. We stoked our conscience with the delusion that we were also radicals, but like a lot of radical young men, we weren't very radical at all. The outlook we embraced was two hundred years old and thoroughly mouldy. Romanticism had begun as a muddled reaction against the Industrial Revolution, with noble and less noble aspects; but by the time we got our hands on it, it was simply reaction. We opposed the commercial turn of research for all the wrong reasons. In place of the phony hacks and conmen of industry, we wanted to worship mythic, incorruptible heroes. We didn't want power to be grounded in finance and capital; we wanted power to be a mystic force, unaccountable to anyone on Earth. We didn't want the university to be a marketplace: we wanted it to be a mountaintop fortress, or better still, a forbidden monastery.

SCIENTIFIC CELIBACY

In his introduction to A Mathematician's Apology, Snow hints at another source of unhappiness in Hardy's life. Hardy was a lifelong celibate surrounded almost constantly by temptation; he spent much of his time in the company of young men he adored but couldn't reach out to. To his friends he confessed his desires freely, but it seems that he never acted on them; instead, his unrealised desires became an end in themselves. Hardy remained forever pure, in both the mathematical and the carnal sense.

There's a strong link between the two types of purity. Unrequited love is the stock theme of romantic poets: love is never more pure than when it is lost or unconsummated, and the lover never more heroic or romantic. Romanticism, in all its concerns, tends to fetishize the theory rather than the practice, the promise rather than the fulfillment, the dream rather than the reality. The outlook that values scientific purity tends also to value a romantic kind of celibacy.

Romantic celibacy falls in neatly with the kind of nerd dualism in which the mind is elevated above the body. After all, what is shagging if not "just applied" love? For the nerd who values purity, a fuck is a corrupted fantasy; remove or deny the possibility of consummation, and your lusts remain forever pure and beautiful and useless.

Hardy's own celibacy may not have been entirely by design; the mores and laws of his time strictly forbade the consummation of desires such as he felt. Your standard straight male romantic hero, however, has no such troubles or excuses. For him, avoidance of sex necessitates avoidance of the opposite sex. Much as nerds slaver over their ideal women, an actual woman in their midst is more often than not unwelcome. Purity, by one means or another, is used to construct a man's world.

And it was so right of Randall to select maths and physics as the "purest" disciplines: in my experience, they're certainly the least contaminated by pussy. More than others, university maths and physics departments hark back to an era when academics were gentlemen of the cloth. The purest research groups are quasi-monastic orders in which the poor knights of science pursue their individual ascetic crusades, with no distractions allowed or tolerated.

THE PROTOCOLS OF PURITY

Strongly associated with purity is the notion of scientific rigour. Rigour is purity in practice, a scientific ethical system which prescribes chastity in deed as well as thought. Rigorous scientific practice follows a set of elaborate formal procedures, a series of Masonic trials that ensure only the purest of mind progress. New results must be carefully styled as the consequence of established truths, new knowledge must be shown to rest on sacred and eternal foundations, and all must respectfully kow-tow to the saints who walked before them.

Contemporary notions of scientific rigour date from the late 19th century, the heyday of philosophical positivism. Before that, scientists were rather more slapdash in their approach, if hardly less productive. Indeed, it's highly debatable whether rigour is of much value in stimulating scientific progress or ensuring the correctness of scientific work. The advance of history renders the most unassailable fortress vulnerable; and as the positivists found out, everlasting truths can turn out to be all too temporal. Today's rigorous proofs become tomorrow's wastepaper.

What is undeniable is that scientific rigour has significant political value. The formalities of rigour, like the formalities of the Ming Emperor's court, are rituals of power, and the elite ranks of pure science are reserved for those best schooled in them. Failing to observe the protocols of rigour can leave a scientist punished or marginalised. It must be said that rigour helps to screen out some (but not all) crackpots and charlatans; but it does this at the cost of establishing formalist cliques in the pure sciences, who enforce the mastery of experience over ingenuity. It doubtful whether someone like Hardy's protege Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant but far from rigorous mathematician, would be tolerated in such circles today. (That he was noticed in the first place is a chance tribute to Hardy's personal qualities.)

The protocols of rigour are exacting, unforgiving of errors, and obscure and impenetrable to the outsider. They are exaggerated formalisms which obfuscate and mystify the underlying knowledge, and thus place it secure in the possession of its academic guardians. The screens of formulas and equations you see presented at the average scientific conference are rarely meant to be understood by onlookers, even those who work in the most imtimately related fields. They have one primary message: this is difficult, difficult, difficult shit, for the hardcore only.

FOR WHAT PURPOSE?

The enemy of rigour and purity is the ad hoc approach, an approach that fits solutions to a particular purpose. Ad hoc explanations and solutions are sound and often highly effective in their own contexts, but make no claims to generality. As such, they attract only the sneers of scientific purists. Pure science, like the kitschiest art, aspires to be generic and timeless and universal. Pure science rejects all worldly purpose.

Scientific purists are right to be suspicious of purpose. Applied research is politicised research, openly co-opted to some political agenda, which, given present-day sources of funding, is more often than not a reactionary one. The aim of such research is to to produce work that will advance corporate or national interests in controlled, predictable ways: to produce patented techniques that give a competitive edge, or to produce concrete (and desirable) policy recommendations to be mulled over by think-tanks.

But purity is no refuge from politicised research, despite its apolitical appearance. To claim to be apolitical is a contradiction. Every public stance is a political stance: all social acts can influence others, however subtly or imperceptibly. A political absolute zero is unattainable; just as all matter at a finite temperature radiates heat, all social acts radiate politics.

In truth, to be "apolitical" is to be politically white-hot, to shine brightly in the colours of the status quo. Purists are invariably reactionaries of one form or another, whether they call themselves liberals, libertarians, or conservatives. To retreat into eternal truths is to accept the current structures of temporal power. And it's a luxury possible only for those already well up in the hierarchy.

It takes considerable personal qualities, and no mean amount of good fortune, to make your way past the mercenaries in the present academic environment. It's much more difficult that it should be, but it's not impossible: I'm pleased to say that I know many people who produce interesting academic work. But one thing is for sure: none of it is being done by the pure of heart.

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