Saturday, August 7, 2010

War and peace and theoretical mathematics...

I'm still making my way through War and Peace.  This week I came across a character named Pfuel who brought me back to my math department days.  He is a Russian military theorist who has devoted his life to developing his own brand of military theory and has no patience for barbarians who want to taint his theory with practical applications and concerns.  The Russian army is attempting to apply his theory in their defense against Napoleon and the French.

There is often underlying tension between pure and applied math departments.  As someone from the applied side of the aisle, this cracked me up:
"Pfuel was one of those theorists who love their theory so dearly they lose sight of the aim of all theory, which is to work out in practice.  He was so much in love with theory that he hated all practice and didn't want to know about it.  He positively rejoiced in failure, because failure was due to practical infringements of his theory, which went to show how right the theory was."

"Pfuel seemed uniquely capable of treating even Napoleon like a barbarian, on a par with everyone else who opposed his theory."
This is what I love about Tolstoy.  Even for a minor, fringe character, in a few words he paints a vivid and true picture of human nature.

*All of the War and Peace quotes are from the Anthony Briggs translation here.

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