Mathematical Sciences Research Institute

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Life: Gallery: Beautiful minds caught on camera

The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute sits high on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco Bay. It is part of the University of California at Berkeley, and it serves as a retreat for world-class mathematicians. Here they are allowed to devote themselves entirely to the discovery of new mathematics, without the unwanted interference of a heavy teaching workload.

Before becoming a photographer, I studied for a doctorate in mathematics, so I was intrigued to spend a month here as photojournalist in residence. For the residents, having a photographer around meant a distraction from their work. They were also baffled by what I could hope to achieve.

"How can you photograph mathematics? All we do is think," said one researcher.

This is almost true. Another problem is that when mathematicians think, they don't like having a camera stuck in their face. This meant I had to become a snoop: poking my way into offices, creeping around on the floors of lecture theatres, eavesdropping on intense conversations - these became the only way to produce a photo-documentary on mathematicians.

This institute reminds me of a monastery, full of maths monks who have undertaken a vow of silence. Each of these devotees is enclosed in their chamber, or in the library. The only sound resonating through the long corridors is that of chalk tapping on blackboard and the occasional muttering of mathematical oaths.

The only possible respite from this devotion would be the 3pm coffee break. But no, this is merely an occasion for combining their mental powers in a free-form brainstorming session on the communal blackboards. As the late Paul Erdos, a celebrated Hungarian mathematician, once put it, mathematicians may be defined as machines for converting coffee into theorems.

Ed Alcock completed his PhD in mathematics at Queen Mary and Westfield College in 1999. The main result of his thesis is published in the Journal of Algebra (Academic Press). He was awarded the title of Best Student Photographer of the Year 1999 in competitions organised by the Guardian and the Independent. He is based in Paris, and is a regular contributor to the British and American press.

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