CTK Insights

09 Nov

Enchanted by Fascinating Mathematical People

Fasinating Mathematical People by Alexanderson and Albers

This is a beautifully illustrated collection of interviews and biographical etudes of 16 mathematicians of different backgrounds, varied professional interests, diverse level of achievement - all incredibly interesting as human beings. The sixteen interviewees lived and were active in the 1900s, though some are yet alive; the stories throw light - if only in the form of personal perspectives - on many aspects, events and personalities of the 20th century.

Lars Ahlfors came first to the US at the time of the Great Depression (find out how much a Harvard professor was making at the time,) but then at the outset of the WWII felt that his place was at home when his country - Finland - was at war. Towards the end of the war the moods had changed and he and his family were secretly flown to Scotland by the British.

Tom Apostol was the first-born of an immigrant shoemaker father and a mail-order bride. During the Depression his mother took in laundry to help out but also in exchange for piano lessons for him and his sister.

Fast forward to Tom's C.L.E. Moore Instructorship at MIT, he sat on Norman Levinson lecture on differential equation. The first time the room was packed but the lecture was terrible. At the end Levinson made an announcement: "This is probably the clearest lecture you'll hear all year." Next time, only a third of the audience showed up but the lecture was excellent. The first one appeared a subterfuge to get rid of the uninterested students.

In 1967, Tom was invited to be a visiting professor at the University of Athens. When he arrived, there were no classes as the students were on strike. The reason? They wanted to be promoted from year to year even if they had not passed any exams. (They already had daily food allowances, free books, free tuition.) Greece was clearly on a course to the current economic crisis.

The conservative Harold Bacon held a secret of getting through life: trust in God and vote the Democratic ticket.

Tom Banchoff did not hear the word "mathematics" until the high school (it was all "arithemtic" beforehand. I guess no "New Arithmetic" has ever emerged.)

Leon Bankoff was a dentist in Hollywood with occasional practice on zoo inhabitants. His Erdös number was 1.

Now, truth be told, I have not finished the book; I'll be reading it leisurely - as I did so far - in the coming days, perhaps weeks. The book does not appear to be intended or suitable for uninterrupted reading. I'll be keeping it at a shelf within an easy reach. It is an awfully good and entertaining read for the time when one needs quiet and rest. I can imagine that the younger readers may disagree and would devour the book in a single session. Even then, it will do them a lot of good. I heartily recommend the book to a broadly aged audience.

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