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Fascinating Mathematical People

Fascinating Mathematical People: Interviews and Memoirs

Donald J. Albers
Gerald L. Alexanderson
With a foreword by Philip J. Davis
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Fascinating Mathematical People
    Book Description:

    Fascinating Mathematical Peopleis a collection of informal interviews and memoirs of sixteen prominent members of the mathematical community of the twentieth century, many still active. The candid portraits collected here demonstrate that while these men and women vary widely in terms of their backgrounds, life stories, and worldviews, they all share a deep and abiding sense of wonder about mathematics.

    Featured here--in their own words--are major research mathematicians whose cutting-edge discoveries have advanced the frontiers of the field, such as Lars Ahlfors, Mary Cartwright, Dusa McDuff, and Atle Selberg. Others are leading mathematicians who have also been highly influential as teachers and mentors, like Tom Apostol and Jean Taylor. Fern Hunt describes what it was like to be among the first black women to earn a PhD in mathematics. Harold Bacon made trips to Alcatraz to help a prisoner learn calculus. Thomas Banchoff, who first became interested in the fourth dimension while reading a Captain Marvel comic, relates his fascinating friendship with Salvador Dalí and their shared passion for art, mathematics, and the profound connection between the two. Other mathematical people found here are Leon Bankoff, who was also a Beverly Hills dentist; Arthur Benjamin, a part-time professional magician; and Joseph Gallian, a legendary mentor of future mathematicians, but also a world-renowned expert on the Beatles.

    This beautifully illustrated collection includes many photographs never before published, concise introductions by the editors to each person, and a foreword by Philip J. Davis.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3955-1
    Subjects: Mathematics, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Philip J. Davis

    How do the words of mathematicians‚ discussing their work‚ their careers‚ their lives‚ become known to a larger audience? There are‚ of course‚ biographies and autobiographies of mathematicians going as far back as Pythagoras. There are letters galore. Some off-the-cuff remarks have been preserved (e.g.‚ those of Lagrange). Thus‚ authentic words of bygone mathematicians are not difficult to come by‚ and out of them it would be easy to construct an imaginative mock interview:

    Interviewer: Academician Euler‚ with so many children how did you manage to separate your professional life from your family life?

    Euler: I’m glad you asked. I...

  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Donald J. Albers and Gerald L. Alexanderson
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Sources
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  7. One Lars V. Ahlfors
    (pp. 1-16)
    Donald J. Albers

    Lars Valerian Ahlfors (1907–1996) was born in Helsinki, Finland, and earned his PhD at the University of Helsinki under Ernst Lindelöf in 1928. In 1935 he came to Harvard University for three years but then returned to Helsinki to help carry on its mathematical tradition. Forced to leave by World War II, he accepted a professorship at Harvard, where he worked until his retirement in 1977. Ahlfors is remembered by his students and colleagues as refined and reserved, yet a delightful host fond of good food, drink, and conversation—and always eager to work the following day.

    Ahlfors’s work...

  8. Two Tom Apostol
    (pp. 17-42)
    Donald J. Albers

    Tom M. Apostol is professor emeritus of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology. His writing talents blossomed in graduate school in the late forties at UC Berkeley, in large part because textbooks were rarely used by the UC faculty, and he felt compelled to transform his class notes into text form. He is especially well known for his pathbreakingCalculusin two volumes, first published in 1961, and hisMathematical Analysis, published in 1957. Both have been translated into several languages, and both are still in print! These books have had a strong influence on an entire generation of...

  9. Three Harold M. Bacon
    (pp. 43-51)
    Gerald L. Alexanderson

    Many great research universities have on their mathematics faculties one or two senior people who do not spend their lives producing important theorems but still contribute greatly to mathematics, both on their own campuses and more widely. They are often revered by their students for their classroom teaching and their mentoring. One such was Harold Maile Bacon, who, with his longtime colleague Mary Sunseri, played just such a role in the mathematics department at Stanford University.

    Bacon came to Stanford as a freshman in 1924, following in the footsteps of his father who had graduated only a few years after...

  10. Four Tom Banchoff
    (pp. 52-78)
    Donald J. Albers

    As an undergraduate, Tom Banchoff missed the class of one of his teachers, a distinguished mathematician, and made the mistake of apologizing in the hallway. His teacher was infuriated by his absence and, in a very loud voice, told young Banchoff, “You will never be a mathematician, never, never!” That teacher was wrong, for Tom Banchoff has gone on to a distinguished career as a researcher and teacher. He is now Professor of Mathematics at Brown University.

    As a high school student, Banchoff, after reading a Captain Marvel comic book, became interested in the fourth dimension andFlatland, a book...

  11. Five Leon Bankoff
    (pp. 79-95)
    Gerald L. Alexanderson

    Leon Bankoff was born in New York City on December 13, 1908. Thus, in the spring of 1986, he became one of the few who were able to witness for the second time the appearance of Halley’s Comet. Although he had an early interest in mathematics, he did not choose the subject for a career, so after college at CCNY and dental school at NYU and USC, he became a prominent Los Angeles dentist whose list of patients includes rock stars and other luminaries of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood scene. With a resurgence of his interest in mathematics in the late...

  12. Six Alice Beckenbach
    (pp. 96-106)

    A mathematologist may be defined as someone who specializes in the study of mathematicians and their peculiarities.

    It is no secret that the mathematics professor is a breed of human both admired and shunned by the ordinary person (“and perdaughter,” to quote Ralph Boas) and locked lifelong in a love-hate relationship with the remainder of the human race. The “victim” body count in my own family thus far includes my father, brother, two husbands, two sons, and now at least three grandchildren on their way to joining the list. Perhaps I should add that although treatment for my family disease...

  13. Seven Arthur Benjamin
    (pp. 107-128)
    Donald J. Albers

    Arthur Benjamin is a Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. He is a gifted teacher, an accomplished magician, and a dazzlingly good mental calculator. Now forty-eight, his career has been marked with a string of successes. But as a child growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, all bets were off about his future. Little Art Benjamin was so rambunctious in his first nursery school that he was thrown out! Ditto for his second nursery school, and the third. Today his problem would be called ADHD. He overcame the problem, eventually earning a PhD in mathematical sciences from...

  14. Eight Dame Mary L. Cartwright
    (pp. 129-145)
    James Tattersall and Shawnee McMurran

    Mary Cartwright was born December 17, 1900. She matriculated at St. Hugh’s, Oxford and was awarded a DPhil from Oxford in 1930. Her thesis advisors were G. H. Hardy and E. C. Titchmarsh. During her career she made important contributions to the theory of functions and differential equations. She is particularly well known for her work with J. E. Littlewood on van der Pol’s equation. Dame Mary was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1947. She received the Sylvester Medal of the Royal Society and the De Morgan Medal from the London Mathematical Society. Cartwright served...

  15. Nine Joe Gallian
    (pp. 146-164)
    Deanna Haunsperger

    As President of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), Joe Gallian was a very busy man. Not that he wasn’t busy before he became president: The man seems to have only one speed—busy. After three days of meetings of the Executive Committee at MAA Headquarters in Washington in May 2007, on his sixth math-related trip already that year, Joe agreed to talk with me about his activities and thoughts on mathematics one afternoon. I asked if he could spare an hour and a half. Three and a half hours later, he was still going strong, regaling me with personal...

  16. Ten Richard K. Guy
    (pp. 165-192)
    Donald J. Albers and Gerald L Alexanderson

    As a young faculty member at Goldsmiths College in London, Guy was told by a seasoned staff member, “Goldsmiths is noted for its successes and suicides—which are you going to be?” A half-century later the answer is clear—Richard K. Guy is a great success. He has published more than two hundred papers and nine books, some running to several volumes and some translated into languages other than English. And more books are on the way. His writing is marked by clarity and wit. He is a very popular lecturer, who has an unerring sense of when to drop...

  17. Eleven Fern Hunt
    (pp. 193-214)
    Claudia Henrion

    If you ask mathematicians why they went into mathematics, you will often hear something like “It was fun; I was good at it; it seemed like a natural thing to do.” But for a black woman born in 1948, there was nothing natural about going into mathematics; indeed, not a single black American woman received a PhD in mathematics until 1958. So for Fern Hunt, who later became a professor at Howard University and who is now a senior researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, pursuing mathematics meant beginning a journey through unmapped territory. It was hard...

  18. Twelve Dusa McDuff
    (pp. 215-239)
    Donald J. Albers

    Dusa McDuff is a highly accomplished mathematician who works in symplectic geometry, a relatively recent and somewhat esoteric branch of mathematics. She says, “Symplectic geometry is an even-dimensional geometry. It lives on even-dimensional spaces and measures the sizes of two-dimensional objects rather than the one-dimensional lengths and angles that are familiar from Euclidean and Riemannian geometry.”

    McDuff claims that if it had not been for Miss Cobban, her high school math teacher who taught her geometry and calculus, she might not have become a mathematician. She did know that she had to do something to impress her father, a geneticist...

  19. Thirteen Donald G. Saari
    (pp. 240-253)
    Deanna Haunsperger

    You might expect a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Editor of theBulletin of the American Mathematical Society, author of well over a hundred publications, winner of the Ford, the Allendoerfer, and the Chauvenet Prizes for expository writing, Guggenheim Fellow, and author of the booksThe Geometry of Voting and Chaotic Elections! A Mathematician Looks at Votingto be too busy to discuss the importance of mathematics with a group of nonmathematicians or a class of fourth-graders. But if you have read what Donald G. Saari, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences at...

  20. Fourteen Atle Selberg
    (pp. 254-273)
    Gerald L. Alexanderson

    Atle Selberg was one of the most distinguished number theorists of the twentieth century, having contributed over a long career to our understanding of the primes, through his work in analytic number theory, specifically his results on the Riemann zeta function and on sieves. In 1949 he produced an elementary, but by no means simple, proof of the Prime Number Theorem, which had previously required deep theorems from complex analysis. The mathematical literature abounds in references to his work—the Selberg sieve, the Selberg trace formula, the Selberg zeta function, the Selberg identity, the Selberg asymptotic formula, and so on....

  21. Fifteen Jean Taylor
    (pp. 274-293)
    Donald J. Albers

    Jean E. Taylor is a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University, vice-president of the American Mathematical Society, and a member of the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She finished first in her class at Mount Holyoke College. Taylor retains the questioning manner that distinguished her as a schoolgirl, as evidenced by her fondness for the bumper sticker “QUESTION AUTHORITY!” Over the past quarter-century she has studied minimal surfaces, the closed surfaces enclosing the least volume or those with a given space curve as boundary that have minimal surface area.

    In the early days...

  22. Sixteen Philippe Tondeur
    (pp. 294-318)
    Donald J. Albers

    Philippe Tondeur is a research mathematician and a consultant for mathematics, science, and technology. His current interests include mathematics research and engineering; innovation policy; institutional governance; and leadership development.

    In 2002 he retired as Director of the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Previously he had served as head of the department of mathematics at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

    He earned an Engineering degree in Zürich, and a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Zürich. Subsequently he served as a research fellow and lecturer at the University of Paris, Harvard University,...

  23. Biographical Notes
    (pp. 319-320)
  24. Glossary
    (pp. 321-324)
  25. Index
    (pp. 325-328)