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At the Carriage House: Remembering Paul Halmos

The story of Paul Halmos' life (1916-2006) is one you might see on a movie screen or read about in an inspirational storybook. He was a Hungarian-born immigrant who entered the United States as a teenager, speaking what he called "rapid, incorrect, ungrammatical English."  Yet, he graduated from high school by age 15 and from college three years later. He obtained a graduate degree in mathematics, partly because he failed the philosophy exam.  He went on to teach mathematics for nearly seventy years and became one of the most respected mathematical expositors of his era.

Halmos attended the University of Illinois, where he obtained his Ph.D. in 1938. His long and successful teaching career began soon after and included stops at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and Indiana University. Halmos wrote a number of influential books, including Finite-Dimensional Vector Spaces. He described one of his other works, I Want to Be a Mathematician, as his "automathography."

On May 7, a group of people gathered at the MAA's new Carriage House Conference Center to listen to a pair of Halmos’s peers reminisce about the life and times of the man who may have been known as much for his strong opinions as for his remarkable ability to teach math. Paul and Virginia Halmos had donated the funds required to turn the venerable building behind the MAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., into a modern meeting place.

Virginia and Paul Halmos

John B. Conway and Juan Jorge Schäffer, two friends of Halmos, delighted the crowd with stories about Halmos' life and mathematics, ranging from his extremely organized office at Indiana University to his influence on the style of writing mathematics.

Conway, the chair of the mathematics department at George Washington University, was a colleague of Halmos for twenty years while at Indiana.  Conway recalled the two friends walking home everyday after work, talking about mathematics—and nothing but mathematics. "Come to think of it, I don't think we ever once talked about politics or religion," Conway said. He noted Halmos' "impeccable mathematical taste" and commented that Halmos ". . . never wrote about anything he hadn't thought long and hard about."

Schäffer, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, talked about the strong opinions held by his one-time professor, saying that Halmos "had opinions about everything—and most of them were right."  He discussed the great effort that Halmos put in to learn Spanish for his stint at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay, and recalled that "Halmos spoke Spanish very well, but with an American accent." 

The evening came to a close with a number of questions for the two speakers and some additional general thoughts on the life of Halmos, from both the speakers and those in attendance. Conway may have put it best when he said, "Paul taught us and he taught us well, and we all owe him."—R. Miller

News Date: 
Wednesday, May 9, 2007