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As the old story goes, Pythagoras and his followers were adamant that all numbers were rational, until Hippasus came along and proved that $\sqrt{2}$ (the length of the diagonal of the unit square) is irrational. A lot of Pythagoras' work was thrown into question, and as a result, he sentenced Hippasus to be drowned.

Now, I'm dubious of the reliability of this story (it varies from source to source), but I am interested in whether there are more cases of a mathematician being persecuted (punished in some way) by "the man" for making a radical discovery/proof.

Are there any such examples? If there are, please state the discovery (the actual mathematical statement) along with the punishment.

Edit

I'm looking for examples of persecution solely due to the discovery (not anything to do with the race, relgion, orientation, etc. of the discoverer)

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    $\begingroup$ Earth is not flat. Not strictly mathematical though. $\endgroup$
    – UserX
    Commented Oct 11, 2014 at 22:50
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    $\begingroup$ Galileo was persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church for the discoveries he made from his telescope, though this was not a mathematical discovery so it does not fit your request. $\endgroup$
    – KCd
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 2:11
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    $\begingroup$ German mathematicians who were Jewish were forced out of their positions by the Nazis. Landau in particular was boycotted by his students under the guise that his particular "style" of mathematics was unsuited to the classroom in Germany. $\endgroup$
    – KCd
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 2:21
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    $\begingroup$ @KCd: Good point. Also Schur had to quit his position, too. Hausdorff was persecuted as well, and eventually committed suicide to avoid the camps. Although none of them were persecuted for their discoveries. Just for their religion. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 2:56
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    $\begingroup$ See the story by Anna Varvak (currently the top-ranked one) among the answers to mathoverflow.net/questions/53122/mathematical-urban-legends $\endgroup$
    – KCd
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 3:36

5 Answers 5

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Here is a rather comical one.

Henry Oldenburg founded the Royal Society (in London) in 1662.

If an effort to publish high quality papers, he had to correspond with many foreigners across Europe. The high volume of foreign correspondence came to the attention of authorities. He was arrested as a spy and held in the Tower of London for several months.

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    $\begingroup$ And, more recently, Andre Weil was arrested by the Finnish police in 1940 on a suspicion of being a Soviet spy. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 1:13
  • $\begingroup$ And Rokhlin was arrested by Soviet police on suspicion of being a German spy and spend about 2 years in GULAG. None of this is comical, of course. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ @studiosus: neither of those examples are people being persecuted for their work, as the original question had asked. $\endgroup$
    – KCd
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 2:04
  • $\begingroup$ @KCd: Weil's case was nearly identical to the one described by Nick, with suspicious papers being mathematical correspondence between Weil and Kolmogorov. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 2:55
  • $\begingroup$ @studiosus IIRC, the Fins were so scared of the Sowiets that they supported Nazi Germany, which was strong enough to fight the USSR (they hoped). (Of course, they weren't, in the end.) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 3:01
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For his mathematical achievements, Cantor was ostracized by the mathematical community. Instead of being given the professorship he deserved, he ended up teaching in what was effectively a community college. He slowly went insane after that.

Describing the mathematics of Cantor, Poincare is famously quoted as saying that "later generations will regard Mengenlehre (set theory) as a disease from which one has recovered".

Source: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/dangerous-knowledge/

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    $\begingroup$ There is not strong evidence that Poincaré actually said this. Here's an article discussing the quote. $\endgroup$
    – user98602
    Commented Oct 11, 2014 at 23:00
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    $\begingroup$ While some people "stuck branches" into Cantor's wheels, he was not at all ostracized. Many influential mathematicians saw in set theory an interesting subject, and he did publish some work. He also didn't "slowly went insane", he suffered from depression, from which he recovered for some time and published more papers, later to sink into it again. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 0:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Asaf Your first sentence is your own interpretation. For sure Kronecker did ostracize him; also see "An Episodic History of Mathematics" (Steven Krantz) which specifically mentions ostracism . $\endgroup$
    – Ganesh
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila I would also say that a man who goes into depression recovers and later sinks into it again could be described as "slowly went insane". $\endgroup$
    – NicNic8
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ @NicNic8: No, it doesn't. "Slowly went insane" is a broad, unclear, and quite frankly insulting to anyone who ever knew someone close that suffered from depression. Not to mention that clinical depression, being one of the modern world's most common diseases does not really count as "going insane", or else we're all insane, in which case the definition of sanity is meaningless to begin with. "Slowly went insane" hints, somehow, something more akin to onset schizophrenia, or other psychotic disorder. Not depression. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 19:46
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Israel Gelfand discovered the tridiagonal matrix algorithm (or rather established its stability and applied to numerical solution of PDEs) in the early 50s . In view of the main applications of numerical analysis at that time the method - essentially an elementary linear algebra - was classified by the Soviet government services and Gelfand was forbidden to leave the country. Being a major mathematician of the epoch, he was therefore unable to participate in any conference abroad until (?) the late 70s.

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There was an acerbic dispute between David Hilbert and L.E.J. Brouwer in the beginning of the 20th century. Basically, the former found the latter's insistence on constructivist methods ever more annoying. The animosity had eventually led to Brouwer's isolation within the scientific community. Brouwer survived his exile by almost forty years and died at an old age—in a car accident.

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It is a bit the other way around (someone persecuted who found refuge in his own mind) : Jacow Trachtenberg developed a method for doing arithmetics while being held in a nazi camp.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trachtenberg_system

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    $\begingroup$ As pointed out in the comments to the main questions, there were severely mathematicians which had to endure hardships from the Nazi regime. It's not quite what the question is asking, though. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ @vajra78, Agreed, my bad, deleted the comment. $\endgroup$
    – Ganesh
    Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 5:54
  • $\begingroup$ Similarly, Desargues famously developed projective geometry while a prisoner of war in Russia between 1812 and 1814. $\endgroup$
    – MJD
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 1:22
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    $\begingroup$ @MJD It was quite remarkable for Desargues to do so, too, since at that time he'd been dead for over 150 years. $\endgroup$
    – David K
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ I think you meant Poncelet ... :-) $\endgroup$
    – David K
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 21:05

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