J. E. Littlewood
(9 Jun 1885  6 Sep 1977)

Science Quotes by J. E. Littlewood (18 quotes)
A good mathematical joke is better, and better mathematics, than a dozen mediocre papers.
— J. E. Littlewood
A linguist would be shocked to learn that if a set is not closed this does not mean that it is open, or again that “E is dense in E” does not mean the same thing as “E is dense in itself”.
— J. E. Littlewood
A precisian professor had the habit of saying: “… quartic polynomial ax^{4}+bx^{3}+cx^{2}+dx+e, where e need not be the base of the natural logarithms.”
— J. E. Littlewood
After an honest day’s work a mathematician goes off duty. Mathematics is very hard work, and dons tend to be above average in health and vigor. Below a certain threshold a man cracks up; but above it, hard mental work makes for health and vigor (also—on much historical evidence throughout the ages—for longevity). I have noticed lately that when I am working really hard I wake around 5.30 a.m. ready and eager to start; if I am slack, I sleep till I am called.
— J. E. Littlewood
Erasmus Darwin held that every so often you should try a damnfool experiment. He played the trombone to his tulips. This particular result was, in fact, negative.
— J. E. Littlewood
I read in the proof sheets of Hardy on Ramanujan: “As someone said, each of the positive integers was one of his personal friends.” My reaction was, “I wonder who said that; I wish I had.” In the next proofsheets I read (what now stands), “It was Littlewood who said…”. What had happened was that Hardy had received the remark in silence and with poker face, and I wrote it off as a dud.
— J. E. Littlewood
I recall once saying that when I had given the same lecture several times I couldn’t help feeling that they really ought to know it by now.
— J. E. Littlewood
In passing, I firmly believe that research should be offset by a certain amount of teaching, if only as a change from the agony of research. The trouble, however, I freely admit, is that in practice you get either no teaching, or else far too much.
— J. E. Littlewood
In presenting a mathematical argument the great thing is to give the educated reader the chance to catch on at once to the momentary point and take details for granted: his successive mouthfuls should be such as can be swallowed at sight; in case of accidents, or in case he wishes for once to check in detail, he should have only a clearly circumscribed little problem to solve (e.g. to check an identity: two trivialities omitted can add up to an impasse). The unpractised writer, even after the dawn of a conscience, gives him no such chance; before he can spot the point he has to tease his way through a maze of symbols of which not the tiniest suffix can be skipped.
— J. E. Littlewood
It is possible for a mathematician to be “too strong” for a given occasion. He forces through, where another might be driven to a different, and possible more fruitful, approach. (So a rock climber might force a dreadful crack, instead of finding a subtle and delicate route.)
— J. E. Littlewood
It was said round 1912 that it gave him [Edmund Landau] the same pleasure when someone else proved a good theorem as if he had done it himself.
— J. E. Littlewood
Less in this than meets the eye.
— J. E. Littlewood
Mathematics is a dangerous profession; an appreciable proportion of us go mad.
— J. E. Littlewood
The infinitely competent can be uncreative.
— J. E. Littlewood
The surprising thing about this paper is that a man who could write it would.
— J. E. Littlewood
The theory of numbers is particularly liable to the accusation that some of its problems are the wrong sort of questions to ask. I do not myself think the danger is serious; either a reasonable amount of concentration leads to new ideas or methods of obvious interest, or else one just leaves the problem alone. “Perfect numbers” certainly never did any good, but then they never did any particular harm.
— J. E. Littlewood
There is much to be said for being a mathematician. To begin with, he has to be completely honest in his work, not from any superior morality, but because he simply cannot get away with a fake.
— J. E. Littlewood
We come finally, however, to the relation of the ideal theory to real world, or “real” probability. If he is consistent a man of the mathematical school washes his hands of applications. To someone who wants them he would say that the ideal system runs parallel to the usual theory: “If this is what you want, try it: it is not my business to justify application of the system; that can only be done by philosophizing; I am a mathematician”. In practice he is apt to say: “try this; if it works that will justify it”. But now he is not merely philosophizing; he is committing the characteristic fallacy. Inductive experience that the system works is not evidence.
— J. E. Littlewood
Quotes by others about J. E. Littlewood (1)
Plenty of mathematicians, Hardy knew, could follow a stepbystep discursus unflaggingly—yet counted for nothing beside Ramanujan. Years later, he would contrive an informal scale of natural mathematical ability on which he assigned himself a 25 and Littlewood a 30. To David Hilbert, the most eminent mathematician of the day, he assigned an 80. To Ramanujan he gave 100.