Brian Rotman

Brian Rotman’s most recent book is Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts and Distributed Human Being.

Techno-Sublime: Fractals

Brian Rotman, 7 November 2013

Benoit Mandelbrot, who died in 2010, was a Polish-born, French-educated mathematician who flourished and became famous in America. His special genius was his ability to disregard disciplinary boundaries and find a common pattern underlying disparate phenomena. From adolescence on he was possessed by an urgent desire to invent a mathematical object that would transform the way we look at the...

Five years ago Régis Debray published an article in Le Monde diplomatique entitled ‘What Is Mediology?’ His aim was to open up a notion he’d introduced in passing twenty years earlier. Neither a science nor a sociology of the media, mediology, Debray explained, is a discipline of the in-between (l’entre-deux): a study of the interactions between technology and...

Pretty Good Privacy

Brian Rotman, 1 June 2000

The English mathematician G.H. Hardy, who worked in the purest of all mathematical fields, the theory of numbers, used to boast in his patrician way that nothing he did in mathematics would ever be useful. He must be turning in his grave at developments in the ‘science of secrecy’ over the last quarter of a century. Like so many other practices, it has been transformed into a species of applied mathematics by the digital computer, with Hardy’s beloved prime numbers playing a leading role. How this came about is the subject of Simon Singh’s The Code Book, a very readable and skilfully told history of cryptography. Singh’s method is to attach the abstract ideas involved to someone who thought of them, failed to think of them, championed them, or suffered their consequences – this last allowing him to include Mary Queen of Scots, whose unfortunate contribution to the art of secrecy was to correspond with her conspirators using an insecure cipher.’‘

Chef de Codage: codes

Brian Rotman, 15 July 1999

In 1940, Winston Churchill gave the fledgling Special Operations Executive its sabotage and resistance mission: Set Europe Ablaze – an encroachment on its turf not to the liking of the espionage establishment, which used its more powerful ministerial presence in the wartime Cabinet to work against SOE whenever it could. Born thus under sufferance, occupying a lowly level in the Signals hierarchy, run by an establishment-respectful general and composed of independent units – one for each occupied country except France, which had two, one for de Gaulle’s Free French and another for those loyal to Giraud – each recruiting and running its own partisans, SOE was an intelligence professional’s bad dream.’

Being affectionate with numbers, endlessly wondering about them, loving them, is, though impersonal and bloodless, no more strange perhaps than being possessed by the endless ramifications of cricket or trout fishing. Being consumed by numbers to the exclusion of all else, sounds deranged. The Hungarian mathematician, Paul Erdös, number theorist and combinatorialist extraordinary, eccentric, socially dysfunctional, obsessive, childishly egocentric, helplessly dependent on fellow number freaks to feed him, transport him, put him up and put up with him, was certainly outside the normal range, but not insanely so. Like most mathematicians, Erdös had a deep need to be ordered and structured, so requiring long immersion inside mathematical abstractions. He thought numbers more interesting and comforting than anything else in this world and was able to spend most of his waking life in contact with them. When he died in 1996, at the age of 83, he had worked on more problems, made more conjectures, proved more theorems, collaborated with more people, and written and co-written more mathematical papers (over 1500) than any mathematician in history.

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