Sunday, September 28, 2008

What's the use?

A Radio 3 announcer, commenting on this news item, asked - what's the use of this huge prime number? By the end of the programme, somebody had emailed in to point out that such numbers are used in cryptography - and hence useful in securing websites, but I was reminded of something said by GH Hardy, a mathematician. He said something along the lines of - that he was glad that he'd never done anything useful in his life - which sounds reprehensible - until you are told that he lived in wartime (I'm not sure which war), when scientific discoveries were increasingly being used as the basis for new ways to kill people.

But for me, personally, I didn't know what to think. My encounter with GH Hardy happened when I was contemplating studying mathematics at university, and a maths teacher suggested that I read his book. To a young person, wanting to find something useful to do with his life, GH Hardy's comment wasn't exactly encouraging ...

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