Steven Strogatz, a mathematician at Cornell, has a really interesting piece in the New York Times titled The Enemy of My Enemy (02/14/2010). In the article, he argues that the mathematical rules behind negative numbers can also be seen playing out in social and political events. For example, something most people – including myself – take for granted, i.e., the multiplication of negative numbers, could help explain the allegiances between European countries in the run-up to WWI.
Also, there is a brief mention of the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser. For those who don’t know of Morgenbesser, check out the following:
1.) The most celebrated Morgenbesser anecdote involved visiting Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin, who noted that it was peculiar that although there are many languages in which a double negative makes a positive, no example existed where two positives expressed a negative. In a dismissive voice, Morgenbesser replied from the audience, “Yeah, yeah…” (also, “Yeah, right”)
2.) Sidney Morgenbesser walks into a restaurant, has dinner, and then asks the waitress what they have for dessert. She says apple pie and blueberry pie. Sidney Morgenbesser says he’ll have the apple pie. She comes back in a moment and says that they also have cherry pie. So Sidney Morgenbesser says “In that case, I’ll have the blueberry pie.” [Independence of irrelevant alternatives]
3.) A policeman once approached Morgenbesser and told him there was no smoking on the subway. Morgenbesser responded that he was leaving the subway and hadn’t lit up yet. When the cop said, “If I let you do it, I’d have to let everyone do it,” Morgenbesser replied, “Who do you think you are — Kant?” The cop mistook the German philosopher for a vulgar epithet, and Morgenbesser had to explain it all down at a police station. [Categorical Imperative]