A subway topologist

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

  1. 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.” “

  2. 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. :-)

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. John Tukey also liked to think lying down:

    As previously mentioned, Tukey had been involved in scheduling at the New Bedford High School. It is therefore no surprise that from 1945 to 1970 he chaired Princeton University’s Schedule Committee. It was said that he would lie flat on his back and call out answers to scheduling problems. (On various occasions he called himself a “horizontal consultant.”)

    John W. Tukey: His Life and Professional Contributions

  6. 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.

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