Monday, May 14, 2018

Stan the Man... and Mathematician

Stanislaw Ulam via Wikipedia

Yesterday marked the 34th anniversary of the death of Stanislaw Ulam. Most math fans know of him via his Ulam spiral and perhaps some other contributions, but given the wide range and scope of his efforts in mathematics I’m surprised he isn’t an even better known figure to many folks.
His almost 30-year-old autobiography,“Adventures of a Mathematician” is here:

…or you can also read sections of it online here:

And I highly encourage everyone to read this wonderful older piece by his friend and colleague Gian-Carlo Rota (lending a much richer profile of Ulam than does his Wikipedia piece):

To pique your interest it starts off thusly:

“One morning in 1946 in Los Angeles, Stan Ulam, a newly appointed professor at the University of Southern California, awoke to find himself unable to speak. A few hours later he underwent an emergency operation. His skull was sawed open and his brain tissue sprayed with newly discovered antibiotics. The diagnosis — encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. After a short convalescence he managed to recover, apparently unscathed. 
In time, however, some changes in his personality became obvious to those who knew him. Paul Stein, one of his collaborators at Los Alamos, remarked that, while before his operation Stan had been a meticulous dresser, a dandy of sorts, afterwards he became visibly careless in the details of his attire, even though his clothing was still expensively chosen. 
When I met him, many years after the event, I could not help noticing that his trains of thought were unusual, even for a mathematician. In conversation he was livelier and wittier than anyone I had ever met, and his ideas, which he spouted out at odd intervals, were fascinating beyond anything I have witnessed before or since. However, he seemed to studiously avoid going into any details. He would dwell on a given subject no longer than a few minutes, then impatiently move on to something entirely unrelated.”

And elsewhere, Rota wrote of his friend, “Ulam's mind is a repository of thousands of stories, tales, jokes, epigrams, remarks, puzzles, tongue-twisters, footnotes, conclusions, slogans, formulas, diagrams, quotations, limericks, summaries, quips, epitaphs, and headlines. In the course of a normal conversation he simply pulls out of his mind the fifty-odd relevant items, and presents them in linear succession. A second-order memory prevents him from repeating himself too often before the same public.”

Just one more in the panoply of fascinating and brilliant mathematical characters....

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