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Ted Kaczynski was at one time the worlds most famous living mathematician

(This post is inspired by the death of Ted Kaczynski who died on June 10, 2023.) 

From 1978 until 1995 23 mailbombs were sent to various people. 3 caused deaths, the rest caused injuries. The culprit was nicknamed The Unabomber (I wonder if he liked that nickname.) For more on his story see here.

The culprit was Ted Kaczynski. He had a BS in Math from Harvard in Mathematics in 1962, and a PhD in Math from The Univ of Michigan in 1967. He got a job in the Berkeley math dept but resigned in 1969. He soon thereafter moved to a shack in the woods (I wonder if his prison accommodations were better) and began sending out the mailbombs. 

When he was caught in 1995 he was (a) famous and (b) a mathematician. That last point is debatable in that I doubt he was doing math while living in his shack. But we will ignore that point for now. Would you call him a famous mathematician? If so then he was, in 1995, the most famous living mathematician. 

In  1995 Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last theorem (this is not quite right- there was a bug and it was fixed with help from Richard Taylor) and he was, for a brief time, the world’s most famous living mathematician, though perhaps Wiles and Kaczinski were tied. Wiles made People magazine’s 25 most intriguing people of the year! (NOTE- I originally had, incorrectly that Wiles had proven it in 1986. A comment alerted me to the error which makes the story MORE interesting since Ted and Andrew were competing for Most Famous Living Mathemticians!)

Terry Tao won the Fields medal (2006) AND the MacArthur Genius award (2006) AND the breakthrough award (2015). The last one got him a spot on  The Colbert Report (2014) (See here,) For those 15 minutes he might have been the most famous living mathematician. He did not have much competition for the honor.  

And then there is Grigori Perelman who solved the Ponicare Conjecture and declined the Fields Medal and the Millennium prize (Colbert commented on this, see here.) For a very brief time Perelman may have been the most famous living mathematician. He did not have much competition for the honor. 

The most famous mathematicians of all time: Pythagoras of Samos, Euclid, Lewis Carroll. 

1) Pythagoras might not count since its not clear how much he had to do with his theorem.

2) Lewis Carroll is the most interesting case. He IS famous. He DID do Mathematics. He DID mathematics while he wrote the books that made him famous. So he is a famous mathematician but he is not famous for his math. But that does not quite seem right. 

3) The Math version of AND and the English version of AND are different. Lewis Carroll is FAMOUS and Lewis Caroll is A MATHEMATICIAN but it doesn’t seem quite right to call him a FAMOUS MATHEMATICIAN. Same for Ted K.  Andrew W was, for a short time, a legit FAMOUS MATHEMATICIAN. 

3) Stephen Hawkings has appeared on ST:TNG and his voice on The Simpsons, Futurama, The Big Bang Theory. He is famous for a combination of his disability, his expository work, and his Physics. Is he a famous actor? 

4) Science expositors like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson are famous for being expositors of science, not quite for their science. How do Professor Proton and Bill Nye the Science Guy fit into this?

5) Looking at Ted K, Andrew W, Terry T, Grigori P one other point comes up: All of them were famous for a short time but it faded QUICKLY. So- fame is fleeting!