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A Sum of Its Parts

An oral history of MIT’s math department.
June 23, 2009

Midway through Harvey ­Friedman’s freshman year, it became clear that the young logician was a budding talent, so the math department promptly made him a graduate student. When it came time to award him a PhD in 1967, there was a small hitch: Friedman hadn’t completed a language requirement. When the graduate school got wind of this, it held up his degree for days. The issue was finally resolved by mathematics professor Norman Levinson, known as the department’s “godfather.” Levinson said, “I don’t think the quality and reputation of MIT will be determined by the people to whom it does not give degrees.”

Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians
Edited by Joel Segel
AK Peters, 2009, $49.00

This story, told to writer Joel Segel by the late department head Kenneth Hoffman, “was emblematic to me,” says Segel. “It symbolized the kind of students who come to MIT, and the creativity of MIT in handling not-run-of-the-mill circumstances.”

Personalities like Levinson helped transform math at MIT from a required discipline for engineers into a world-class research program that cultivated new talent. For his book Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians, Segel has collected stories from Hoffman and other influential faculty members who remember the 1950s and ’60s as a time when both the department and the world were in flux. “These guys studied with the refugees from Hitler’s Europe, they saw the student population rise after Sputnik, they helped MIT weather the protests generated by Vietnam,” says Segel. “They were very much a product of their times.”

Segel is no stranger to mathematics; his father, Lee Segel, PhD ‘59, would tell jokes about John von Neumann (the father of game theory). “Dad explained the four-color problem when we were in kindergarten,” he says. In Recountings, he has compiled reminiscences from or about 13 faculty members: Institute Professor ­Isadore Singer, Arthur P. Mattuck, Hartley Rogers, Gilbert Strang, Alar Toomre, ­Steven ­Kleiman, Harvey Greenspan, Bertram Kostant, Michael Artin, Daniel Kleitman, and Sigurdur Helgason, as well as Hoffman and Levinson. Their stories also vividly recall colleagues such as the gregarious Warren Ambrose and the brilliant, troubled John Forbes Nash.

Read excerpts from Recountings here.

One of the most telling accounts comes from the department’s “den mother”: Norman Levinson’s widow, Zipporah “Fagi” Levinson. She remembers the department as a very tight-knit, male-­dominated group: “They all got married and they all believed in families and sex and all that, but when there was a mathematical party, the women sat at one side, and the men were at the other, and discussed mathematics.” And when Nash was first admitted to McLean Hospital for schizophrenia, she was in charge of corralling the mathematicians to visit. “I said, ‘My God, they hate him, such an egocentric guy …’ But I was wrong … they knew he’d done wonderful mathematics, and if by coming to visit him they could hasten his recovery so he could do more mathematics, of course they’d come. They all came.”

Such personal anecdotes bring the department to life. Hoffman, for example, fondly recalls that the eccentric mathematician Norbert Wiener was said to have stopped to talk with a student on the stairs one day. As ­Hoffman tells it, “When he got through, he said to the kid, ‘Which way was I going when you met me?’ ‘You were going up.’ ‘Oh, good. Then I’ve had my lunch.’”

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