One of my favorite books when I was growing up was the Mathematics volume in the LIFE Science Library. I didn’t own the book, but my uncle did, and I’d browse through the book whenever I visited him. I was too young at the time to understand much of what I was reading.
One of the pages that stuck in my mind was a photo of Samuel Eilenberg. His name meant nothing to me at the time, but the caption titled “A subway topologist” caught my imagination.
… Polish-born Professor Samuel Eilenberg sprawls contemplatively in his Greenwich Village apartment in New York City. “Sometimes I like to think lying down,” he says, “but mostly I like to think riding on the subway.” Mainly he thinks about algebraic topology — a field so abstruse that even among mathematicians few understand it. …
I loved the image of Eilenberg staring intensely at the ceiling or riding around on a subway thinking about math. Since then I’ve often thought about math while moving around, though usually not on a subway. I’ve only lived for a few months in an area with a subway system.
The idea that a field of math would be unknown to many mathematicians sounded odd. I had no idea at the time that mathematicians specialized.
Algebraic topology doesn’t seem so abstruse now. It’s a routine graduate course and you might get an introduction to it in an undergraduate course. The book was published in 1963, and I suppose algebraic topology would have been more esoteric at the time.
8 thoughts on “A subway topologist”
Take a look at this short story named “A Subway Named Möbius”, by A. J. Deutsch:
A citation from the story:
” “And you call yourself a mathematician, Professor Tupelo!” he said.
Tupelo almost laughed aloud. The incongruous, the absolute foolishness
of the situation, all but overwhelmed him. He smiled thinly, and said: “I’m no
topologist. Really, Mr. Whyte, I’m a tyro in the field—not much better
acquainted with it than you are. Mathematics is a big pasture. I happen to be
an algebraist.” “
Hard enough to challenge a mathematical topologist,
Simple enough that a slime mold can solve it.
I remember reading that as a kid and going to the dictionary to look-up “abstruse.”
Also, “Bourbaki” intrigued me for years, until I could look it up on the internet. :-)
The picture I remember best from that book is that of the colossal German farmer, along with a picture of the food he consumed in a day. I don’t have the book to hand, but I think the purpose was to illustrate the nature of a function.
That first paragraph is something I could have written from my own life, save that the book that fascinated me the most was “The Universe”.
I can still remember where my uncle kept the series: in a little built in bookcase to the right of the fireplace in the parlor; and the smell of lavender (he was a typical unmarried Irish bachelor and lived with my grandmother) and the unspoken understanding that I wasn’t to submerge myself in the books until after supper.
John Tukey also liked to think lying down:
John W. Tukey: His Life and Professional Contributions
Yes! I so vividly remember that photograph. When I went to visit my
cousins, who had a copy, that was the book I turned to.
The book is easy to find at jumble sales like Brisbane’s LifeLine Bookfest. Of course I now have a copy.
I suspect that the photo was important to many who later became mathematicians. For myself, it was a glimpse of a world where one could actually be relaxed (look at his pose) about comtemplating advanced mathematics. It was a contrast to the anti-intellectual attitude of most of my circle at that time – an attitude that I still encounter.