# L’esprit d’escalier?

25 January, 2011

A rather entertaining post at Math Overflow has amassed a bunch of urban legends or colourful tales concerning mathematicians. Several seem “too good to be true” (and are acknowledged as such) but one in particular seems to me more likely to be a case of “a comeback thought up on the way home”:

Allegedly, Jacobi came to show Gauss his cool results on elliptic functions. Gauss’ response was to open a drawer, point at a sheaf of papers, and say: that’s great you are doing this! I have actually discovered these results a while ago, but did not think they were good enough to publish… To which Jacobi responded: Funny, you have published a lot worse results.

*Ouch.*

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In case you’re interested, there’s a standard term for the phenomenon you mention in your last line, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27esprit_de_l%27escalier

So there is. Anyone would think I’d chosen the title of the post to reflect this…

Yup – I saw it just after posting my comment and felt verrry silly.

Oddly enough, I had the same impulse, but I learned from your mistake.

It is maddening not to think of the right reply at the right moment! But when a visitor from Strasbourg to Bangor said to me in 2001 “You are not mainstream!” I came out with the reply: “Not yet!”. Actually I felt the work in which I had been involved since the 1960s went back to the root intuitions or sources of algebraic topology (What is a cycle? What is a boundary? Is there a higher dimensional nonabelian version of the fundamental group?etc, etc, …), so the question of where is the main stream has debatable answers.