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The Academic Uses of Imprisonment

Updated: Dec 26, 2022

My copy of the book

An inescapable part of editing academic material is Internet research, which can unexpectedly entertain and inform (see The Serendipitous Pleasures of Work-Related Googling). The other day, while looking up a technical term, I stumbled upon an odd piece of trivia about finding a career. Of all the improbable ways of homing in on a career, it must rank as one of the strangest. My thoughts drifted to a famous book I had enjoyed reading: The Great Escape. A distant half-formed memory then entered uninvited, about a 20th-century mathematician who had conducted ground-breaking mathematical research in a prison. His name eluded me. I had to return to continue editing my paper, but I resolved to return to this juicy bone at the first opportunity.

A few days later, I turned to Google. The first hit was intriguing: a prison inmate who was one of the authors of a mathematical paper published in 2020. It's a fascinating story about a murder convict, Christopher Haven, who decided to spend his time in prison usefully, by studying math. No, Haven was not a math professor or even a math student; in fact, he was a school dropout. Read his inspiring story here:

Next, I found a page devoted to crowd-sourced examples of scientific work done in prison:

Here, I found the name of the mathematician that had eluded me: Andre Weil. Interestingly, Weil spent a couple of years teaching in India, and had a lifelong interest in Hinduism. On this page I also read about the curious case of Bloch, a mathematician who after murdering three members of his family spent the rest of life in an asylum. All his mathematical research was done there.

So, what was the piece of trivia that had reminded me of The Great Escape? It was about a pioneering soil scientist who was led to his future field of interest by his prison experiences. Wikipedia has just this bald sentence, and I couldn't find anything else to flesh out what must be a remarkable story: "Roscoe obtained his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, and his experiences trying to create tunnels to escape when held as a prisoner of war by the Nazis during WWII introduced him to soil mechanics."

The only other similar example I found on the StackExchange page is Pál Turán, who as a prisoner worked in a brick factory during WW2 and posed a problem now called Turán's brick factory problem (see Turán's Brick Factory Problem).

Four walls can cage the body, but the mind soars free.


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