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Fascinating Mathematical People: Interviews and Memoirs

Donald J. Albers and Gerald L. Alexanderson, editors
Princeton University Press
Publication Date: 
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The Basic Library List Committee recommends this book for acquisition by undergraduate mathematics libraries.

[Reviewed by
Michael Berg
, on

This large and attractively bound book will make a wonderful coffee table adornment in many a mathematician’s living room. It is the third entry along these lines by Albers and Alexanderson, the predecessors being Mathematical People and More Mathematical People. (I guess there’s a pun in the second title, although I don’t quite get it, given that the first-mentioned book contains entries on Paul Erdős, Olga Taussky-Todd, and Garrett Birkhoff, for example, and it’s hard to get more mathematical than that.) Like these other two books, Fascinating Mathematical People contains interviews with a number of mathematicians. The present book is different on two counts, however: there’s a relatively large focus on fellow travelers, as it were, and there’s a diminished emphasis on, for lack of a better word, older-style mathematicians, in a sense reflecting the changing nature of the game in these modern times. There is a long interview with the late Alice Beckenbach, for instance, the focus falling on her life with mathematicians (defined as professional theorem-provers) and luminaries she had known. Also, there are interviews with Richard Guy, who charmingly but ultimately disingenuously characterizes himself as an amateur who, in over 50 papers, has virtually no theorems in print (yeah, right…), and Leon Bankoff, professional dentist, pianist and guitarist, mathematician and problem solver par excellence. By the way both have an Erdős number that is neither prime nor composite. (See the characterization, to be found in the book, of Erdős numbers < 1.)

Fascinating Mathematical People also contains an interview with mathemagician Arthur Benjamin, and with Joe Gallian and Tom Apostol, evincing an increased representation of, again for lack of a better word, pedagogy: these articles are illustrative of today’s much increased concern for teaching as part of a professional academic’s career. Benjamin talks about his reasons for choosing Harvey Mudd College, for example, while Apostol talks about the production of his (wonderful!) books in connection with the courses he taught for so many years at Caltech.

The book also contains interviews with, e.g., the late Lars Ahlfors and the late Atle Selberg, together representing Scandinavia, the Fields Medal project, and a huge amount of deep and important mathematics. There is also a fantastic interview (probably my favorite piece in the entire book, Selberg’s arithmeticianship notwithstanding) with Dame Mary Cartwright, not only a wonderful mathematician but a direct student of G. H. Hardy and E. C. Titchmarsh (these being her two official doctoral advisors) and associate of J. E. Littlewood (who received her thesis). Dame Mary, who passed away in 1998 at age 97, presents us with a first hand account of the orbit of British mathematics from the days when Hardy and Littlewood set out to modernize the Oxbridge system (viz. the old Tripos, &c.: see, e.g., Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology) through the war years and well beyond, into our current age, as it were. Her discussions of life at her Victorian home, then life as a don at Cambridge and eventual Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge (for nigh on 20 years) are irresistible; in this connection see also:

Of course, Fascinating Mathematical People contains many other articles and interviews besides: just take a look at the table of contents. The book is certainly aptly named.

For us mathematicians, for whom reading and chatting about mathematics and mathematicians is the lion’s share of what passes for small talk, this book is just the ticket.

Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.

Foreword by Philip J. Davis vii
Preface ix
Acknowledgments xiii
Sources xv

One: Lars V. Ahlfors 1
Two: Tom Apostol 17
Three: Harold M. Bacon 43
Four: Tom Banchoff 52
Five: Leon Bankoff 79
Six: Alice Beckenbach 96
Seven: Arthur Benjamin 107
Eight: Dame Mary L. Cartwright 129
Nine: Joe Gallian 146
Ten: Richard K. Guy 165
Eleven: Fern Hunt 193
Twelve: Dusa McDuff 215
Thirteen: Donald G. Saari 240
Fourteen: Atle Selberg 254
Fifteen: Jean Taylor 274
Sixteen: Philippe Tondeur 294

Biographical Notes 319
Glossary 321
Index 325