Have you heard the story about the famous mathematician who was asked by one of his students how to solve a puzzling problem? The professor thought about it for a moment, then smiled and wrote down the answer.
The student, who really wanted to know not just the answer but the method used to arrive at it, asked his teacher, "But isn't there another way to solve it?"The professor thought about it a while longer, then smiled and said, "Yes," and wrote down the answer a second time.
Steven G. Krantz, professor of mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote about "Mathematical Anecdotes" in a recent issue of the journal the Mathematical Intelligencer. In the article, he refers to such stories as "incidents that have been passed down through iterated tellings and are therefore unverifiable."
I'd just call them campus legends about math geniuses and how they think.
For example, Krantz heard that Stefan Bergman (1898-1977), inventor of the "Bergman kernel," a formula that is beyond my understanding of math, once said to one of his American students that "a mathematician's most important tool is the stapler."
The explanation, which is perfectly clear to me, is that Bergman wrote his academic papers in longhand, had them typed, and then revised them by stapling strips of paper containing changes over the appropriate passages. When the manuscript became too unwieldy, it was retyped and the process would be repeated.
Bergman, a native of Poland, was once supposed to have bragged to his American students, "I speak 12 languages - English the bestest."
A similar story is told about Abram S. Besicovitch (1891-1970), whom Krantz reports, "became world-famous for his solution of the Kakeya needle problem." (I'll take his word for that.)
Anyway, Besicovitch, a Russian native, was said to have told a class in America that laughed at his fractured English, "Gentlemen, there are 50 million Englishmen speak English you speak; there are 200 million Russians speak English I speak."
The best stories, as well as the largest number, seem to be told about Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), the MIT mathematician who became best known to the general public for coining the term "cybernetics."
In a twist on the "second-method" anecdote, after a lecture, one student supposedly approached him saying, "Dr. Wiener, on problem No. 27, I found your solution very interesting, but I did it a different way."
The student then wrote out the equation on the chalkboard, and imitating Wiener's custom, a moment later the student simply wrote out the answer.
Wiener, it was said, studied the student's work for a few minutes and then commented, "Well, I'll admit that your answer is right, but your method is wrong."
Academic anecdotes wouldn't be complete without some stories about eccentric and absent-minded professors; mathematicians, like other professorial types, attract these too.
Stefan Bergman, for example, is supposed to have said to his mistress shortly after they arrived at his first position in the United States at Brown University, "Now we are in the United States where customs are different. When we are with other people, you should call me `Stefan.' But at home you should continue to call me `Professor Doktor Bergman.' "
Krantz assures readers that Bergman was "not the sort of man who would have had a mistress." Apparently though, he was the sort to attract an apocryphal story.
The classic absent-minded Wiener story is also told about other forgetful academics. According to Krantz's version, when Wiener and his family moved to a new home, his wife put a new set of house keys and a slip of paper with the new address written on it into Wiener's coat pocket.
But, lost in thought about mathematical matters, the great man walked to his old home after work, saw that the house was empty, but still tried to unlock his old door with the new key. When the key wouldn't fit, Wiener turned in confusion to a little girl who was walking up to him and said, "I'm very upset. My family has disappeared, and my key won't fit the lock."
The girl replied, "Yes, Daddy. Mommy sent me for you."
1991 United Feature Syndicate Inc.