The Top 10 Mathematical Scandals

While it may seem unusual to put the words “math” and “scandal” together in the same sentence, it’s not without precedence. In fact, as this list proves, throughout history, mathematics has had it’s fair share of scandals from cheaters to affairs to murders. In no particular order, here’s my breakdown of the top 10 mathematical scandals of all time.

Steinmetz High School Crashes the U.S. Academic Decathlon

Yeah, I know, it’s a high school competition. How can cheating on a high school competition make my list? When HBO makes a movie about your cheating escapades and the USAD hands down a 10 year competition ban to your school, you know it is a major scandal. I’ve personally seen the modern version of Chicago Whitney Young (the team Steinmetz cheated to beat) in action at Illinois math competitions, and it’s hard to believe Steinmetz could have beaten them in a fair competition. And it’s not like there’s any remorse. Quoted in the New York times, one of the members of the team said: ”Apologize for what?” Jolie Fitch, one of those caught cheating asked defiantly. ”I would do it again.”


The Nobel Affair (famous, but false)

You’ve probably heard this one. There is no Nobel prize for mathematics because Alfred Nobel’s wife was having an affair with a mathematician. That mathematician would have been in line to be one of the first winners of a Nobel prize for mathematics, something Mr. Nobel could not have allowed, so he didn’t set up a prize for mathematics. This story was actually explained in great detail in the book Mathematical Scandals. The only problem with that story (and the book) is that Alfred Nobel was never actually married. Snopes has actually gone into great detail to refute this urban legend. Still, this is such a well established “scandal” that I had to include it on this list, if for no other reason than to help refute it.


Burning of the Library of Alexandria

There’s no doubt that the ancient library, built around the 3rd centrury BC, housed academic wonders beyond just mathematics discoveries. However, mathematical works by Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, and many other mathematicians were among its most treasured documents. Details of the fire are hazy, but what is clear is that library’s destruction was a major setback to the academic world at the time.

MIT Card Counters

Here’s another mathematical scandal that made its way into Hollywood, although I suppose “scandal” may be a bit of a stretch here. This is simply a case of really smart college students (and a professor) using their knowledge of mathematics and statistics to use card counting to tilt the odds that normally fall to the casinos back in the favor of the gambler. The casinos’ security firms eventually caught up to them, but not before they made millions of dollars, and eventually a blockbuster movie–21.


Air Force Cheating Scandal

Why was the world so shocked when it was revealed that 78 Air Force Academy students had cheated on their math final exams? We’d all like to think that the men and women that are admitted to the service academies have undergone such a rigorous screening and training process both based on academics and character that they’d be above such a cheating scandal. Unfortunately, what we learned is that when you give a calculus test in an online, unproctored, at-home setting, the temptation for cheating my be too much for just about anyone. Who’d have thunk?


Alan Turing Trial

Turing was one of the great mathematical geniuses of the 20th century, bringing contributions in mathematics, cryptology, and artificial intelligence. During World War II he played a great role for Britain in breaking secret German codes. Unfortunately for him, he was also gay at a period of time when homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain. After being charged and pleading guilty in March of 1952, Turing was stipped of his security clearance and subjected to hormonal treatments. He was viewed with suspicion by authorities for the rest of his life. Sadly, Turing committed suicide by poison apple just two years later at the age of 41.

Andre Bloch Murders

Andre Bloch was a Frenchman who was active for 31 years as a mathematician. All 31 of the years he spent contributing to mathematics were in a mental institution. Why? Because in 1917 while on leave from World War I he killed his brother, his aunt, and his uncle. Apparently, he told at least one of his mathematician colleagues that he committed the murders as a eugenic act to rid the family line of people afflicted with mental illness. Yikes. Something tells me he may have missed one family member afflicted with mental illness.

P vs. NP at HP

The question of whether P = NP is probably the most important unsolved question of computer science today. Let me oversimplify dramatically by saying it boils down to a question of whether certain problems that involve immense numbers of calculations can be solved using computers. Most mathematicians/computer scientists believe P does not equal NP and therefore, computers cannot solve these very complex problems. In August of 2010, Vinay Deolalikar, a researcher at HP, shocked the world by revealing that he had proved that P does not equal NP. Unfortunately, within a short time, several experts shot holes in his proof. By September of 2010, Deolalikar claimed to be hard at work on a fix to the proof, but almost 3 years later, there is no resolution to the question of P vs. NP.

Newton and Leibniz Battle for the Soul of Calculus

If your studies of math have taken you to “the calculus” and beyond, you’ll know that the study of the infinite and infinitesimal is one of the most amazing branches mathematics can offer an early college student. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz felt the same way, but they strongly disagreed about who deserved credit for discovering calculus. Centuries before social media, the war Newton and Leibniz waged for credit was just as ugly as any modern troll-fest on Twitter as they and their associates battled it out via the letters and journals of the day, each accusing the other of plagiarism. Ironically, historical documents now seem to reveal that both men made their discoveries independently and nearly simultaneously.

The Irrational Murder of Hippasus

Those crazy Pythagoreans. They didn’t just discover that amazing theorem about right triangles (you know, a2+b2=c2). Way back in the 5th century BC they discovered irrational numbers, and then committed murder to keep their discovery secret. Specifically, a guy named Hippasus managed to prove that the square root of 2 was an irrational number. Legend has it that he was going to reveal this to the public at large, and this did not go over well with the rest of the Pythagoreans, who drowned him at sea. Apparently, the idea of irrational numbers struck at the heart of their belief of an ordered universe. Think Copernicus proving the Sun is not the center of the universe. Sure, there are some questions about the details of the legend of Hippasus, but I challenge the folks at Snopes to go back and disprove this legend.

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