This Mathematical Month - April: A Brief Look at Past Events and Episodes in the Mathematical Community
Monthly postings of vignettes on people, publications, and mathematics to inform and entertain.
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Featured Item for April
April 1986: Mathematics Awareness Week was celebrated for the first time. That year, the United States Congress passed legislation inaugurating this annual event, which is designed to promote public awareness of mathematics and its uses. The event comprised dozens of regional and local celebrations, many of them within college and university mathematics departments, as well as a public service announcement that aired on over 200 television stations around the country. Mathematics Awareness Week was eventually expanded to Mathematics Awareness Month (MAM), which is now celebrated each year in April. Each MAM focuses on a particular theme; for 2013 the theme is "Mathematics of Sustainability". This theme is related to the worldwide yearlong event Mathematics of Planet Earth. Two articles in the April 2013 issue relate to the MAM theme: "The Mathematics of Sustainability", by Simon Levin, and "Quantitative Approaches to Sustainability Seminars", by Rachel Levy. The Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM), which sponsors MAM, chooses the themes and produces theme essays and a poster, which groups can build on for their own local and regional celebrations. The JBPM is a collaborative project of the AMS, the American Statistical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.
April 1997: Fields Medalist Enrico Bombieri played an April Fools Day joke. He sent out an email message claiming that a young physicist giving a talk at the Institute for Advanced Study announced a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis, one of the outstanding problems in mathematics and one that Bombieri has worked on himself for years. The email message circled the globe and more than a few people were fooled--at least for a while. The message contained some hints that it was not entirely serious; it said for example that the physicist was working with particles called "morons".
April 1988: Robert P. Langlands of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton received the first NAS Award in Mathematics from the National Academy of Sciences. The award recognized Langlands' "extraordinary vision that has brought the theory of group representations into a revolutionary new relationship with the theory of automorphic forms and number theory." Established by the AMS in commemoration of its centennial in 1988, the US$5,000 award was made possible through gifts to the Society from Morris Yachter and Sidney Henry Gould. It is given every four years for excellence of research in the mathematical sciences published within the past ten years. Other recipients are Michael J. Hopkins (2012), Clifford Taubes (2008), Dan Virgil Voiculescu (2004), Ingrid Daubechies (2000), Andrew J. Wiles (1996), and Robert MacPherson (1992).
April 1973: The first international meeting on topology ever held in Japan took place in Tokyo. This was a significant event in the development of topology in Japan, now a thriving area of research there. The conference brought leading topologists from all over the world. General lectures were presented by Michael Atiyah ("Eigenvalues and Riemannian geometry") and by Christopher Zeeman ("Applications of catastrophe theory"). There were also lectures in the topology of manifolds, singularities, foliations, dynamical systems, algebraic topology, and other subjects. The Mathematical Society of Japan published the proceedings of the conference in 1975.
April 1959:The AMS held its 555th meeting, at the University of Chicago, April 17-18, 1959. The registration was 241, including 208 members of the Society. Professor I. I. Hirschman of Washington University and Professor S. A. Amitsur visiting the University of Notre Dame from Hebrew University addressed the Society. Hirschman spoke on "Multiplier transformations" and Amitsur's lecture was "Pivotal monomials and polynomial identities of rings."
Readers may view online the first century of the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, from 1891 to 1991, searchable and fully integrated with the modern Bulletin. The approximately 84,000 pages of the Bulletin are freely accessible to all.
April 5, 1936: An unattributed article titled "Princeton Center for Mathematics" appeared in the New York Times. The brief piece described activities in Fine Hall, the building constructed in 1931 to house the Princeton University mathematics department. At the time the article was written, Fine Hall was also the home of the then-newly established Institute for Advanced Study. "Utilizing the facilities for informal cooperation provided by the building is the largest single group of distinguished mathematicians in the world, according to scholars," the article said. It also mentioned afternoon tea at Fine Hall, where students and visitors could rub elbows with the likes of Albert Einstein, Oswald Veblen, Hermann Weyl, Luther Eisenhart, and Solomon Lefschetz. Wolfgang Pauli and P.A.M. Dirac were also mentioned as recent visitors. As noted in the article "The Vision, Insight, and Influence of Oswald Veblen" by Steve Batterson, which appeared in the May 2007 issue of Notices of the AMS, Oswald Veblen had a big influence on the design of Fine Hall and introduced many features that facilitated mathematics research---as well as some luxurious ones that simply made the building a very pleasant place to be. In the 1960s, a new building was constructed for the Princeton mathematics department and today bears the name Fine Hall.
April 1906: On the 28th day of that month, one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century, Kurt Gödel, was born in what was then Brünn, Austria-Hungary, and is now Brno, Czech Republic. Perhaps Gödel's most outstanding achievement was to show that, within an axiomatic system, there are statements that cannot be proved or disproved within the system. This is his Incompleteness Theorem, which startled the mathematical world and showed that the efforts to create a axiomatic foundation that would encompass all of mathematics were fruitless. Gödel received his doctorate in 1929 under the direction of Hans Hahn at the University of Vienna and later joined the faculty there. Uninterested in politics, he was largely unaware of the dangers posed by Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Gödel was not himself Jewish, though he had Jewish friends and was sometimes thought to be Jewish. But it was not fear of anti-Jewish persecution but rather fear of conscription in the German army that led Gödel, along with his wife Adele, to emigrate to the United States in 1940. He joined the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he remained until his death in 1978. Gödel had always been convinced he was in poor in health, and towards the end of his life he became worried that he was being poisoned. After his wife died, he literally starved himself to death. This brief sketch is based on the entry about Gödel on the MacTutor History of Mathematics web site. The definitive account of his life is Logical Dilemmas: The Life and Work of Kurt Gödel, by John Dawson (A.K. Peters, 1997). The April 2006 issue of the AMS Notices featured a special tribute to Gödel on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth.
April 1899: On the 24th of that month, Oscar Zariski was born in Kobrin, Belarus, Russia. He had a tumultuous early life during World War I and eventually went to study mathematics in Rome with the great Italian algebraic geometers of the day. He received his doctorate from the University of Rome in 1925, under the direction of Guido Castelnuovo. Because he was Jewish, his life became increasingly difficult in the years leading up to World War II, and in 1927 he emigrated to the United States. After holding positions at various universities, and also spending a year in Brazil, Zariski went in 1947 to Harvard University, where he remained for the rest of his career. Although he admired the ingenuity of his Italian teachers, Zariski realized the lack of rigor in their methods. With André Weil and B. L. van der Waerden, Zariski began to lay the foundations for a new, more rigorous approach to algebraic geometry. A charismatic and inspiring figure, he attracted at Harvard a large number of excellent doctoral students, including two who would go on to receive Fields Medals, Heisuke Hironaka and David Mumford. Zariski received the AMS Cole Prize in Algebra in 1944 and served as president of the AMS from 1969 to 1971. In 1965, he received the National Medal of Science. Read more about Zariski's life and work in the obituary by David Mumford that appeared in the November 1986 issue of the Notices, and the biography The Unreal Life of Oscar Zariski, by Carol Parikh (Academic Press, 1991). See also the entry about Zariski on the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive.
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