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MAA Film Offers Insightful Conversation with Paul Halmos

Paul Halmos' book I Want to Be a Mathematician—An Automathography (MAA, 1985) mixed biographical material and mathematics with a historical view of the development of U.S. mathematical research from the 1930s to the l980s. Readable, enjoyable, straightforward, detailed, and opinionated, it offered first-hand insight into how Paul Halmos approached research, his career, and his life.

Halmos' legacy is not merely mathematics but also advice and opinion about writing, publishing, speaking, research, and thinking about mathematics. Exploring these topics with a mixture of conviction and humility, his work influenced the professional lives of many mathematicians in the latter half of the twentieth century. Halmos died in 2006 at the age of 90.

In George Csicsery's 44-minute film I Want to Be a Mathematician: A Conversation with Paul Halmos (2009), which the MAA produced, Halmos comes alive again as a master mathematician.

Interviewed by former MAA Director of Publications Peter Renz in 1999, Halmos reveals his ideas on mathematics; how to teach it; and how to write about it. Mathematicians Robert Bekes, David Eisenbud, Jean Pedersen, and Donald Sarason reveal their sentiments about Halmos. Interviews with Halmos by Don Albers and Halmos' own writing, based on the Automathography, are included as PDF documents.

For additional information visit director George Csicsery's website,

Halmos was an advocate of the Moore method of teaching mathematics and had been a friend of R.L. Moore (1882–1974), who developed that approach. This interview was initiated to gather Halmos' reflections about Moore for the Educational Advancement Foundation (EAF) and its "Legacy of R.L. Moore Project." The EAF commissioned Peter Renz and director George Csicsery to film Halmos' at his home in Los Gatos, Calif. Their film follows a Q&A format and is organized into sections with the following subject titles:

  • Becoming a Mathematician
  • The Moore Method
  • Great Teachers
  • Designing a Course
  • The State of Education
  • Getting Results
  • Writing

"To be a communicator, you have to be honest, you have to tell an audience what it is that you communicated," Halmos says at the start. "Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them."

"It might seem unnecessary to insist that in order to say something well you must have something to say, but it's no joke," Halmos declares at another point in the film. "Much bad writing, mathematical and otherwise, is caused by a violation of that first principle."

"Halmos' life was a work of art," interviewer Peter Renz has said. "You see this in the film . . . [and his] autobiography. Halmos tells you not just what he did, but how he did it."

Is this art of his right for everybody? Perhaps not. Look at the selections titled "Work, Preparation, and Spontaneity" in the bonus features, especially David Eisenbud's remarks about trying to incorporate Halmos' ideas when Eisenbud gave a colloquium at Bloomington, Ind. But we can all learn from Halmos.

"How does one move from studying to learning, to doing research, and onward in a career? There is no single path for all, but there are examples to learn from. In I Want to Be a Mathematician, the book and the film, Paul Halmos tells us how he did it—with grace, charm, and wit."

"The depth and power" of Halmos' personality, said director Csicsery, "infuse each section with a special Paul Halmos flavor that makes watching him on video such a compelling experience. His elegant performance shows his consummate skill as a communicator. I Want To Be a Mathematician: A Conversation with Paul Halmos has a message about successful communication for anyone who has ever addressed an audience, taught class, or written an essay or article."

I Want to Be a Mathematician—A Conversation with Paul Halmos (DVD)
George Csicsery, Director
ISBN: 978-0-88385-909-4
44 minutes

I Want to Be a Mathematician—An Automathography
Paul Halmos
ISBN: 978-0-88385-445-7
434 pp., paperbound, 1985

News Date: 
Friday, March 20, 2009