But you read them. Because once -- exactly once -- in history, it turned out that reading a crackpot letter was the right thing to do.
In January 1913, mathematician G.H. Hardy received a nine-page letter from India. Some of its contents were well-known to him, but others were so bizarre that he suspected a hoax.
It was no hoax.
The letter came from Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan had very little formal mathematical training -- he'd learnt most of his maths from textbooks instead -- but Hardy was interested enough in his results to invite him to Cambridge to collaborate.
If I was making Ramanujan's life story up, I'd have had him as a hard-living bad boy star who burned out too young (he died when he was just 32) but in truth he was a shy, mild-mannered lad who suffered from poor health all through his life.
So far, so banal: Indian wonderkid chats up professor, comes to England, does some maths and dies young. There's not much story there. But the maths that Ramanujan did was phenomenal. Ramanujan and Hardy -- much like Laurel and Hardy -- were polar opposites. Ramanujan was very much an intuitive mathematician, while Hardy
was always complaining about fine messes. had a much more formal approach to things, which seems to me like a nicely complementary way of working -- but must have been incredibly frustrating. Ramanujan's notebooks are full of identities simply written down as if plucked from the ether; if he had proofs for such things, he didn't bother to write them down.
And, above all, he was fast, which is what qualifies him as a mathematical ninja.
* This potted biography is... well, based on a true story. The details are wrong in places, because it makes for a better story.