‘Almost Einstein’: One professor’s journey from prodigy to philosophy

John Bell has been described as ‘potentially one step below Einstein.’

While he laughs at the comparison now, there is no denying this teen prodigy has left a significant mark on the philosophy of mathematics.

Bell, a philosophy professor with an adjunct appointment in the Department of Mathematics, knew at a young age he wanted to study physics. He was fascinated by the symbols stamped across the pages of his father’s books. Even though he was too young to interpret the markings, he felt a connection to this foreign language.

“I was a kind-of teenage prodigy,” the 66-year-old says with an air of modesty.

But in spite of his brilliance, he quickly learned he wasn’t destined to follow in Einstein’s shadow.

“I started in physics originally,” he says. “Then I decided I really wasn’t cut out to be a physicist. I shifted to pure math. … I wasn’t intending to be a logician either, at first. But as an undergrad, I got interested in mathematical logic.”

Formulating logical arguments takes calculated, categorical steps, but following Bell’s train of thought is less intuitive. His use of asides and afterthoughts requires any listener to tune a close ear to Bell’s conversation, but following the energetic jumps in speech gives you insight into his racing mind.

As a youngster, Bell traveled around the world with his family, including stints living in the United States, Italy and Thailand. His American engineer father and British musician mother cultivated their son’s unique penchant for math and physics.

“I studied a lot out of school,” he says, noting he ferociously digested mathematical and physic concepts and coupled this with an appetite for science fiction.

Without a consistent educational background – “I was in various schools in exotic places,” he says – the United States was uncertain about what grade to place him in at the age of 11. He was given an IQ test and, to much surprise, he scored highly.

As a result, Bell was able to skip three grades and was set to graduate high school at the age of 14. However, his father was transferred to Libya and, once again, Bell left the traditional U.S. school system.

It was then his mother decided to send him to a British boarding school, Millfield, which became a turning point in his education.

“They sort-of encouraged my teenage prodigism – if you can call it that – and I took a lot of examinations when I was there.”

The headmaster took the top pupils on a roving ‘circus’ to speak with academics at Cambridge and Oxford universities. He identified Bell’s likeness to Einstein.

“He really encouraged me. I gave little lectures … I guess I lapped all this up. I enjoyed being a local celebrity,” Bell remembers.

Prompted by his mentor to further flex his academic muscles, Bell and a fellow student wrote the Oxford scholarship exam. “I don’t really think he expected us to get that, not at that age,” he says.

But at 15, he was granted a scholarship to the prestigious school. He was the youngest person in several years to receive such an honour. In his naiveté, he turned the opportunity down to stay at the boarding school.

More than a year and a half later, he took Oxford up on the offer and eventually received  bachelor and PhD degrees in mathematics.

Bell later became one of the founding members of the math department at the London School of Economics in the 1960s. After 21 years, he switched to philosophy to further explore mathematical logic and the philosophy of mathematics. It was The University of Western Ontario that enticed him to make the move.

“It was a very attractive idea for me because I had the idea to move to a philosophy department … I didn’t have to change what I was doing because a lot of what I was doing fit in here,” he says.

Bell is known for his set and model theories. He co-wrote a textbook widely used by universities, including Western, as part of its graduate curriculum. Adding to the intrigue of this brilliant mind, Bell and friend Alan Slomson penned the textbook when the two were graduate students.

Overall, he has published 10 books and more than 70 papers. Bell was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2009 and his biography is expected to appear in the December edition “Who’s Who in Canada.”

Throughout his academic career, Bell has been lucky enough to indulge his diverse interests and craft his own place in a seemingly regimented field.

Even in the shortest conversation, Bell’s passion for the field – and learning in general – is infectiously evident.

“I knew pretty well, when I was young, what I wanted my life path to be. I was just one of those types,” he laughs. “I think they call them nerds.”