Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Scaffolding with a hedged superlative: "Perhaps the leading mathematician"

In his superb review of Stephen Budiansky's new biography of Kurt Gödel, Ashutosh Jogalekar introduces David Hilbert as "perhaps the leading mathematician of the first few decades of the twentieth century." Such statements combine a superlative ("leading" as a form of "greatest") and a hedge ("perhaps"). My internal copy-editor suggests "one of the leading", but that's still throat-clearing rather than content. As Jogalekar continues with specifics about Hilbert, I'd drop the scaffolding of "perhaps ... leading" and go right to that information: in 1900, David Hilbert's list of "23 open problems in mathematics" provided a blueprint for 20th-century mathematics (and for the work of Gödel himself, who was born in 1906). (Andrew Shields, #111words, 13 July 2021)


David Hilbert and Kurt Gödel


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