Fascinating Mathematical People: Interviews and Memoirs

Fascinating Mathematical People: Interviews and Memoirs

Fascinating Mathematical People: Interviews and Memoirs

Fascinating Mathematical People: Interviews and Memoirs


Fascinating Mathematical People is 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 Dalé 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.


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 didn’t. I con
sider all of them, theorems and children, as
my results.

Interviews? The word interview originally meant simply the meeting of two people. Later it came to mean the questioning of some notable person by a newspaper reporter. In the current and wider sense of the word, interviews with mathematicians start, say, around 1950. We now have interviews that link mathematical works, lives, and opinions. They are often called oral histories.

Since 1950 modes of communication and the possibility of social/technological interchanges have grown exponentially (a mathematical term that pundits like to use). Newspapers, books (e.g., the recent Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians), radio, TV, dramatic stage productions, movies, e-mail, YouTube, the Internet, and conference reports all record or depict interviews in which mathematicians often sound off on all sorts of topics far removed from their narrow specialties. I myself have interviewed several dozen numerical analysts, with texts now available online, as a part of a Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) project. Thus, the time of much singing has come, and the voice of the mathematician is heard in the land. The question of who is listening is not beyond conjecture.

The variety of subjects, professional values, personal lifestyles, and more, of contemporary mathematicians are all well depicted in the interviews presented in this third collection of Mathematical People. Those of us in the mathematical business will find the macro aspect familiar, while the micro aspect satisfies our natural curiosity as to why and what the next fellow is up to.

Perhaps, therefore, the larger value of such collections as this may be found in, say . . .

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