The Fame of Price

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I haven’t posted here for some time, but Razib’s recent review of a book by Oren Harman about George Price prompted me to read the book, and I think I will have a few things worth saying about Price. Harman’s book itself is a good biography, but is sketchy on the mathematical details of Price’s work (as one would expect in a book aimed at a general audience), so it encouraged me to look closely at Price’s original papers for the first time. A few years ago I wrote a commentary on ‘Price’s Equation’, but I based my discussion largely on a treatment by W. D. Hamilton, which I now find is not quite the same as Price’s own approach. I have not seen any close analysis of Price’s own key papers. (The descriptions in Harman’s book are taken almost verbatim from a treatment by Steven A. Frank which itself is very brief and a long way from Price’s original.) My main purpose will therefore be to give a commentary and (I hope) elucidation of Price’s own derivations.

All this will take me a week or two to prepare. Meanwhile, I have been reflecting on the recent upsurge of interest in Price. Not many scientists attract the attention of biographers, unless they are in the class of Galileo, Darwin, Newton, or Einstein, so what is special about Price? More generally, what makes some scientists and areas of science attractive to popular historians and biographers, while others are not?

These thoughts were prompted partly by the references in Harman’s book to Cedric (C. A. B.) Smith. Smith was extremely important in Price’s career, being among the first to take an interest in his biological work and providing him with the facilities to continue it. He continued to support Price in various ways, despite Price’s eccentricities, and he must have been a kind and tolerant man (it is no surprise to find that he was a Quaker). But the point I want to make is that Smith was an important scientist in his own right. He made notable contributions to both genetics and pure mathematics. In purely academic terms he was far more successful than Price, holding J. B. S. Haldane’s former chair in genetics at the University of London, and obtaining various awards and distinctions. Yet nobody is likely to write a popular biography of C. A. B. Smith. So what is the difference between Smith and Price?

A first obvious possibility is that Price’s work, though sparse in quantity, was in fact more fundamental and influential than Smith’s. I think this is probably true, but it can hardly be the whole explanation. Fundamental work (like the Lotka-Volterra equations in ecology) does not necessarily make the stuff of popular biography.

A further requirement is that the subject should in some way be ‘sexy’. It is difficult to say what makes a subject sexy at any given time. At present evolutionary biology is undeniably sexy, but this has not always been the case. Anyone today reading Ronald Clark’s biography of J. B. S. Haldane, published in 1968, must be surprised how little space is given to Haldane’s work in evolutionary theory and population genetics, compared to his other exploits. To qualify as sexy it helps that the subject should be somewhat mysterious, like the problem of altruism in biology, but not so mysterious that the layman cannot even understand the problem. To take some examples from mathematics, Fermat’s Last Theorem, Godel’s Theorem, and Goldbach’s Conjecture are sexy, but Riemann’s Hypothesis and Cantor’s Continuum Problem are probably not, because it takes a great deal of mathematical knowledge even to understand what they are about. (At some points in reading John Derbyshire’s brave attempt to explain Riemann’s Hypothesis I thought I was beginning to see the light, but the illusion soon faded.)

Beyond the subject matter of the science, in biography it seems to help if the person concerned meets one or more of the following criteria:

- eccentricity to the point of, if not beyond the point of, madness (Price, Haldane, W. D. Hamilton, John Nash, Charles Babbage, Godel, Cantor, Erdos, and Turing are examples). Being conspicuously sane and socially well-adapted, like John von Neumann or Niels Bohr, is a definite drawback.

- an unconventional or adventurous sex life is always a plus point (Turing, Haldane, Nash, and apparently Price himself)

- facing neglect or resistance from the ‘establishment’, and having greatness only recognised late in life or, better still, posthumously (Hamilton, Price, Turing, Cantor, Nash). The precedent here was set by Dava Sobel’s hugely successful book Longitude, which set its hero John Harrison against the villainous Astronomer Royal. If no obvious neglect or resistance are apparent, try to manufacture some (for example, Alfred Russel Wallace is always presented as overshadowed or neglected in comparison with Darwin, though in reality Wallace was one of the most widely read and highly regarded scientists of his day).

- being female. There are so few female scientists or mathematicians of any distinction that the occasional exception is bound to garner at least one biography, usually adulatory (for an exception see Dorothy Stein’s judicious debunking of Ada Lovelace).

- dying prematurely, preferably in suspicious or tragic circumstances (Price, Turing, Hamilton, Dian Fossey).

It will be seen that George Price ticks most of the boxes (apart from the female thing), so his current prominence shouldn’t really come as a surprise. It is interesting to see whether there are any scientists who tick a lot of the boxes but have not yet been given the pop-biog treatment. The one who looks most promising is Georg Cantor. There is a good scholarly biography by J. W. Dauben, but so far as I know no popular treatment. All it needs is for someone to discreetly plagiarise Dauben, strip out all the boring technical stuff, beef up the sexy bits (insanity, religion), and give it a jazzy title, preferably with the words ‘God’ and ‘infinity’ in it. Something like The Man who Found God but Lost his Mind in Infinity. I offer this suggestion free of charge to anyone who wants to have a go at it.

4 Comments

  1. Apart from the fact that it’s not, per se, a biography of Cantor, your description sounds like a nearly perfect description of Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor, *Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity*, recently reviewed by (as it happens) Oren Harman in *The New Republic*.

    The review is here: http://www.tnr.com/article/76715/infinitelife?passthru=
    MDBkMjEwNTgzZjNhNGZmYjBhNzEzZTdiZmVlZDk0Nzg

    According to Harman, it sounds like the book tries to make the Continuum Hypothesis sexy…

  2. I watched some of a Brit-made video series on youtube about mathematicians driven mad that featured Cantor & Godel. I think I just watched the Cantor part. Hat-tip to this crank.

    On being female, the most egregious example that comes to my mind is Hypatia. This medievalist has done yeoman’s work enlightening the blogosphere on the topic. I’m surprised there is so little discussion of Curie.

    I read Derbyshire’s book on algebra. I was psyched to hear why polynomials of degree >= 5 don’t have general analytic solutions, but I didn’t fully grasp it. Reading up on quantum mechanics & some other math stuff has got me interested in learning some group theory, but I’m not aware of any good layman’s intro to the subject.

  3. Maybe great scientific advances tend to be made by people whose odd personalities stop them achieving success in academia and are good subjects for a boook. To have a preoccupation with some religious theme is not that uncommon among geniuses; Newton and Price trying to predict events from the Bible for example.

    CH Waddington was the opposite in that he was a very succesful academic, how does his scientific contribution stack up against Price’s ?

  4. Amalie Dietrich, a naturalist specializing in ornithology, classifies as “sexy” and, for this and other reasons, definitely deserves an in-depth biographical treatment.

    http://vertebratesocialbehavior.blogspot.com/2011/01/who-was-first-female-darwinist.html

    Twitter: http://twitter.com/cbjones1943

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