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This Mathematical Month - November: 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 November

November 1888: On the 24th of that month, a preliminary meeting was held to explore the possibility of establishing a professional society for mathematicians in the United States. This initiative eventually grew into the American Mathematical Society. In 1887, Thomas Scott Fiske, a graduate student in mathematics at Columbia College in New York City, was advised by his teacher J. H. Van Amringe to spend six months in Cambridge, England. There Fiske came into contact with some of the leading British mathematicians of the day and also attended meetings of the London Mathematical Society. He later wrote: "On my return to New York I was filled with the thought that there should be a stronger feeling of comradeship among those interested in mathematics, and I propsed to my classmates and friendly rivals, [Edward Lincoln] Jacoby and [Harold] Stabler, that we should try to organize a local mathematical Society." The three fellow students, all born in 1865, sent out a call for a meeting on November 24, 1888, which said: "It is proposed by some recent students of the graduate school of Columbia College to establish a mathematical society for the purpose of preserving, supplementing, and utilizing the results of their mathematical studies." Six people showed up for the meeting, including Van Amringe. A month later, a constitution for the New York Mathematical Society was drawn up, and Van Amringe was made the first president; Fiske served as president of the Society during 1903-1904. In 1894 the name was changed to the American Mathematical Society. Today the AMS is the world's largest professional society for mathematicians, with over 30,000 members. Read more about the early history of the AMS in volume 1 of A Semicentennial History of the American Mathematical Society, 1888--1938, by Raymond Clare Archibald, the entirety of which is freely available on the web. During 2013, various events are planned to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the AMS.

November 1998: The AMS Executive Committee and Board of Trustees initiated discussions leading to the Epsilon Fund for Young Scholars. Today the Epsilon Fund helps support for summer programs for mathematically talented high school students. The fund has provided modest grants to several programs, including Ross Mathematics Program at Ohio State University, Texas State University Honors Summer Math Camp, PROMYS at Boston University, Canada/USA Mathcamp of the Math Foundation of America, Hampshire College Summer Studies in Mathematics, All Girls/All Math at the University of Nebraska, and University of Chicago Young Scholars Program. The Epsilon Fund is supported by generous donations by those concerned about nurturing mathematical talent in young people. Visit the AMS development home page for more information about the Epsilon Fund.

November 1996: The AMS Executive Committee and Board of Trustees approves funding for Society participation in the Mass Media Fellowship program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This program places mathematics and science graduate students to work in media outlets for ten weeks over a summer. The AMS chooses from among mathematics graduate student applicants and has supported one or two fellows every year since 1997. The AMS-sponsored fellows have worked in such high-profile venues as Time magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Scientific American, Discovery Channel Online, National Geographic Television, and National Public Radio. The fellows gain valuable experience in communicating about mathematics with the general public, and the media outlets profit from the fellows' expertise in mathematics. Some of the fellows have gone on to careers in journalism and media relations; one outstanding example is Sara Robinson, a 1998 AMS-sponsored fellow who has reported on mathematics for the New York Times. More information is available on the AMS web site.

November 1995: The mathematics department at the University of Rochester was hit with the news that the university administration planned to eliminate the department's graduate program and greatly reduce its faculty. The news sent shock waves through the mathematical and scientific communities, which saw the move as a threat to the intellectual integrity of universities. The outcry was swift and strong: The Rochester administration received over 100 letters from mathematicians and scientists across the U.S., and even a few from abroad, protesting the proposal to cut the mathematics graduate program. The AMS sent a fact-finding group to the university, and at its January 1996 meeting the AMS Council passed a resolution decrying the cuts. All the outside pressure seems to have exerted an influence, as the Rochester administration later reversed the decision to cut the mathematics department. But what really seems to have made a difference was the department's willingness to work hard at improving its teaching and to reach out to other departments. The Notices of the AMS carried extensive coverage about these events in the March, April, May, and June issues in 1996, and in the December 1997 issue. An epilogue, "Rochester Four Years Later: From Crisis to Opportunity," appeared in the September 1999 issue.

November 1983: On the 16th of that month, AMS President Julia Robinson sent a letter with the following message to Rhode Island Representative Claudine Schneider: "The Council of the American Mathematical Society has authorized me to petition the 102nd Congress to expunge the contempt citation of our colleague H. Chandler Davis which was imposed in 1954 by the 83rd Congress. I am asking you to carry the bill since you are the representative of Providence, the permanent home of the Society." Davis was indicted on a charge of contempt of Congress after refusing to answer questions about his political beliefs posed by the Congressional Committee on Un-American Activities. He was dismissed from his position at the University of Michigan and served six months in a Connecticut prison. Finding himself blacklisted from academic jobs in the United States, Davis left for Canada in 1962 and joined the faculty of the University of Toronto, where he is now a professor emeritus. Despite several efforts, including the letter from Julia Robinson quoted above, the contempt charge against Davis has never been reversed. The University of Michigan has never apologized for dismissing him, but it did establish in 1990 a lecture series in honor of Davis and two other Michigan faculty who had been similarly mistreated. Davis has served in various capacities in AMS governance and was an especially active and vocal member of the Committee on Human Rights of Mathematicians.

November 1963: On the 14th of that month, an article appeared in the New York Times with the following opening: "Two of the most fundamental questions in mathematics today have been answered by Paul J. Cohen, a young Stanford University mathematician. The two questions had persisted for more than a quarter century. By answering them, Dr. Cohen demonstrated the power of modern mathematics. Ironically, he exposed some of its weakness as well." The two questions referred to are whether the continuum hypothesis and the axiom of choice can be proved using the axioms of set theory. By answering the questions in the negative, Cohen received the Fields Medal in 1966. The author of the New York Times piece, John Osmundsen, attended a seminar at Columbia University in which Raymond Smullyan attemped to explain Cohen's work to an audience of science writers. The article quotes Smullyan as saying: "the most powerful set of reasonable axioms we have at our disposal is insufficient to settle the [continuum] problem one way or another." Indeed, the conundrum of the continuum hypothesis remains unresolved today, although some pin hopes on the concept of Woodin cardinals to eventually provide an answer. The New York Times article is available by subscription or purchase on the Times web site. Cohen died in 2007; an obituary appeared in the August 2010 issue of the AMS Notices.

November 1921: Andrew Gleason was born on the 4th of that month. A longtime member of the Harvard University mathematics department, he did not hold a PhD; he was appointed a Junior Fellow at Harvard in 1946 and rose through the ranks, being named Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1969, a position he held until his retirement in 1992. When the United States entered World War II, Gleason, then an undergraduate at Yale University, joined the navy and became one of ten mathematicians working on cracking codes. They collaborated with the famed code-breaking group at Bletchley Park in England, which included Alan Turing. Gleason later worked on code-breaking during the Korean war, when the cryptographic systems had increased considerably in complexity. Gleason is perhaps best known for his contribution to the solution of Hilbert's Fifth Problem, which in its original form asked whether a continuous group action is analytic in appropriate coordinates. He also did important work in Banach algebras, discrete mathematics, and even quantum mechanics, in which he proved a theorem that now bears his name. Known for the excellence of his writing and lecturing, Gleason had deep concern for and interest in students. His interest in education improved the quality of teaching in the Harvard mathematics department and also nationally. He served as AMS president during 1981-82. More about Gleason may be found in "Andrew M. Gleason, 1921-2008", which appeared in the November 2009 issue of the AMS Notices.

November 6, 1906: Emma Lehmer was born in Samara, Russia. In 2006, she celebrates her 100th birthday. She and her husband Derrick Lehmer were one of the most famous husband-and-wife mathematician teams; he passed away in 1991 at the age of 86. The two made distinguished contributions to number theory, in both their individual and joint work. Emma Lehmer, née Trotskaia, was raised in Harbin, China, where her father worked as a representative of a sugar company. She was tutored at home until the age of 14, when she attended school and took mathematics courses from an exceptionally gifted teacher. Emma traveled to the United States to do her undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley. There she met her future husband Derrick, who was the son of one of Emma's professors at Berkeley. The couple moved together to Brown University, where Derrick earned a PhD and Emma a master's degree. Eventually they returned to Berkeley, where Derrick joined the faculty of the mathematics department. Nepotism rules forbade Emma from being offered a position in the same department, though she did do some teaching during the World War II years when the rules were relaxed. In 1945-46, her husband worked on military applications with the legendary ENIAC computer, and sometimes at night, when the computer was free, the couple used it to work on number theory problems. With no teaching duties, Emma devoted herself to mathematics research and wrote about 60 papers in number theory, 20 of them jointly with her husband. As John Brillhart wrote: "In the sixty years during which they collaborated, the Lehmers were a research team who personally influenced a large number of people with their knowledge, their courtesy and sociability, and their fine mathematical work." This account of Emma Lehmer's life is based on the portrait found in the MacTutor History of Mathematics biography of Emma Lehmer.

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