(Dedicated to Michele)
The main thesis of this article is the following: hiding from life is still living. In other words: you can choose your life (maybe), but you can not escape from life.
A good friend of mine uses to think that physics (the way he puts it, but I could also say maths, or hacking…) is opposed to life. I’ll start by supporting his argument, with a quotation from Joseph Weizenbaum (creator of ELIZA) talking about the MIT hackers:
…bright, young men of disheveled appearance, often with sunken glowing eyes, can be seen sitting at computer consoles, their arms tensed and waiting to fire their fingers, already poised to strike, at the buttons and keys on which their attention seems to be as riveted as a gambler’s on the rolling dice. When not so transfixed, they often sit at tables strewn with computer printouts over which they pore like possessed students of a cabalistic text. They work until they nearly drop, twenty, thirty hours at a time. Their food, if they arrange it, is brought to them: coffee, Cokes, sandwiches. If possible, they sleep on cots near the computer. But only for a few hours—then back to the console or the printouts. Their rumpled clothes, their unwashed and unshaven faces, and their uncombed hair all testify that they are oblivious to their bodies and to the world in which they move. They exist, at least when so engaged, only through and for the computers. These are computer bums, compulsive programmers. They are an international phenomenon.
Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer power and human reason (1976)
There is a trend to think that hackers of any kind, let them be computer programmers, mathematicians, physicists… want to escape from reality, that’s why they create their small world in which they are almighty, their own Asgard, a world of purity. Some of them may even think that they’re escaping from life, but life can not be escaped. It is a natural trend within life!
Mathematics is not as pure as mathematicians think. Arnold used to explain that there is no such thing as good maths outside physics. Otherwise, it is just an intellectual game, and not a quite funny one. Physics is not so pure either, but that is easier to grasp after the Manhattan project. About the hackers Weizenbaum talked about… they thought they lived in a clean world there in the MIT AI lab, but it was funded by the US military…
The world is imprevisible and chaotic. Often, this is nice and fine. But sometimes, when you feel in pain, you’d like some cozy environment where you can hide from the stupid people outside. Maths, physics… can be such a place. Sometimes. Life has resources for everything…