It has been famously said that the author is dead. This declaration was made in the context of printed works. It is not clear if the author had scientific texts and equations in mind also but there is no reason to exclude them from the ambit of this famous declaration. One of the important implications of the statement, “the author is dead’’, relates to the permissiveness of interpretations. Once a work — be it a novel, an essay, a philosophical treatise, a piece of music, a painting and so on — has been finished and brought into the public domain the intentions of the author become irrelevant. The author’s intention and meaning can easily vary from the way the work is received and interpreted by readers, listeners and viewers. There are no reasons to argue that the author’s intended meaning is in any way more privileged than the meaning invested in a piece of work by those who read or see or listen to it. Meanings change and the way a work is used also alters — such alterations can sometimes enrich and embellish the original work. Shakespeare’s plays or the various versions of the two great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are examples that come easily to mind.
It is in this context that it is difficult to understand the anxiety of the celebrated mathematician, Andrew Wiles, that mathematics has lost its moral purity. Mr Wiles is famous because at the end of the 20th century he proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. His anxiety is based on his worry that advances in mathematics are being used as powerful tools to make financial gains or as weapons in cyber wars. Even if Mr Wiles’s worries are valid — and there are no grounds for assuming that they are not — it is difficult to comprehend how the use of mathematics or any other scientific breakthrough can be prevented or avoided. The links between scientific discoveries and ethics are tenuous and complex. It is possible to draw a jagged line between Albert Einstein’s famous equation and the development of ‘bomb physics’ and the making of the first atom bombs. But from this it would be a quantum jump to ascribe moral impurity to the revolution that Einstein brought about in physics. The smashing of the atom or the discovery of uranium fission were not acts of moral impurity, no matter how these breakthroughs were used subsequently. Similarly, the discovery or the making of chemicals has to be distinguished from the production and use of chemicals. Not to make these distinctions might result in the complete cessation of scientific work.
Once a scientific discovery is made or a mathematical equation is put forward, the concerned scientist or mathematician has no control over how it is used, extended or applied. The benefits or otherwise that result from the original work is independent of it. The use does not tarnish the purity of the original.