The flanks leading to the summit, leave alone the heights of mathematical abstruseness, are unattainable for ordinary mortals. Is there any other subject that induces such awe and shock among the uninitiated?
My father, a mathematician, tells of a mystified lawyer who asked him the following question when he was doing his master’s in mathematics: “What kind of research can be done in mathematics? Two plus two will always be four.” My father observes that this is like asking, “What kind of research can be done in physics? One cc of water will always weigh one gram.” Or even, “Why are lawyers needed in court when a knowledgeable judge well versed in law is present?” The devil lies in the details.
Here is another mathematical anecdote from my father. During the course of a walk with my mother, he explained to her that probabilities were always numbers lying between 0 and 1. Her response: “What?! They’re such tiny numbers! How can you devote your entire life to studying them?”
If my mother, a doctor, had hit upon the analogy with bacteria and viruses, she may not have had cause to wonder.