The Invisible Heart

The Invisible Heart
Robert Osserman
The award of a Nobel Prize in economics to mathematician John Nash in 1994, led first
to the recounting of his remarkable life story in Sylvia Nasar’s biography, A Beautiful
Mind, and then to the Academy Award-winning film of the same name. One consequence
was the somewhat surrealistic scenario in which a living mathematician sat in the
audience, watching himself portrayed on the screen by one of Hollywood’s hottest actors,
Russell Crowe, fresh from winning an Academy Award for his portrayal of a fierce
Roman gladiator. Another consequence was that the rather obscure notion of “the
invisible hand” from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, became common currency to
a broad public. But most importantly, the same broad public was exposed to the fact that
mathematics is a live and vigorous field of study, one that underlies often unsuspected
facets of modern life.
One could go further: it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that mathematics is
the invisible heart of modern life. Without it, the word processor that I am using to write
these lines would not exist, nor the email program required to forward it as an
attachment, nor the computer system I am using for that purpose. Without the
mathematical heart beating invisibly in the background, there would be no digital
photography, no global positioning system, no Google search engine, no Pixar movies, no
CT-scans or MRIs, and the list goes on and on. In each case, the mathematics has been
paired with advances in technology, and it is almost invariably the technology that
supplies the visible face (or interface) to the public.
Little-known story: when Pixar was founded, as a spin-off from Lucas Films, and was
taking its first steps toward the production of computer-generated movies, its first
commercial product was a dedicated computer for combining multiple CT-scan images of
the interior of a person’s body, coloring the various organs, and providing 3D-images that
one could rotate and view from any angle. It was all done with the magic of modern
Our challenge now is to do the same for the body of 21st-century civilization, fully
revealing its normally invisible interior, and at its center, the steadily beating
mathematical heart.