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Paul Halmos: A Life in Mathematics

Paul R. Halmos (1916-2006), a major figure in twentieth century mathematics, died on October 2 in Los Gatos, California. Of Hungarian descent, he came to the United States at age 13. He entered the University of Illinois at 16, and received his doctorate when he was 22. Upon receiving his PhD he spent two years at the Institute for Advanced Study as an assistant to John von Neumann. Over the course of his career he held positions at the University of Chicago, University of Michigan, Indiana University, the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Hawaii, and Santa Clara University.

Professor Halmos was a famed author, editor, teacher, and speaker of distinction. Nearly all of his many books are still in print. His Finite Dimensional Vector Spaces, Naive Set Theory, Measure Theory, Problems for Mathematicians Young and Old, and I Want to be a Mathematician are classic books that reflect his clarity, conciseness, and color. He edited the American Mathematical Monthly from 1981-1985, and served for many years as one of the editors of the Springer-Verlag series Undergraduate Texts in Mathematics and Graduate Texts in Mathematics.

Halmos was thoroughly dedicated to mathematics, and he loved communicating it to others. He was recognized for his success as an expositor, and received several writing awards. He also was a noted teacher, winning the prestigious MAA Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics.

He was especially clever in choosing provocative titles for the articles he wrote - "Applied Mathematics is Bad Mathematics," "The Thrills of Abstraction," "American Mathematics from 1940 to the Day Before Yesterday."

When interviewed several years ago, he was asked: What is mathematics to you? He responded: "It is security. Certainty. Truth. Beauty. Insight. Structure. Architecture. I see mathematics, the part of human knowledge that I call mathematics, as one thing — one great, glorious thing." A few years later, he was asked about the best part of being a mathematician. He said: "I'm not a religious man, but it's almost like being in touch with God when you're thinking about mathematics."

Paul was also a great friend of the MAA. Several years ago, Paul and his wife Virginia made a very sizable donation to the MAA for the reconstruction of our Carriage House in Washington, DC, as a meeting center. That project is just now reaching completion, and already mathematics events are being held there. We at the MAA hope that this wonderful facility will be a fitting tribute to Paul and his mathematical interests.

Married in 1945, he is survived by his wife Virginia.

News Date: 
Tuesday, October 3, 2006