Book Review: Recountings

Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians
by Joel Segel
CRC Press, 2009

This book traces the development of MIT’s Mathematics department after World War II, as it developed from a service department in an engineering school into a world-class center of research.  In that sense, the book follows in the footsteps of The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s, which attempted to capture a Golden Era of mathematics at Princeton.  But the MIT oral history is somewhat more cohesive, for Joel Segel conducted all the interviews himself.  As a result, he can adapt his questioning as he goes along, seizing on salient events and getting reactions from later interviewees.

Common threads

For example, several of the professors mentioned the tension between the pure and applied groups in the department.  Indeed, many top math programs handled this tension by splitting into two departments.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is still home to a unified Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, seems to be reluctant to split disciplines apart.  Yet that doesn’t mean that everything was smooth sailing.

Tenure was a major sticking point among the applied mathematicians, who found it difficult to push their candidates through, as the pure mathematicians didn’t agree with their assessment of who constituted a tenure-worthy candidate.  In the end, the conflict was resolved when the applied group took over sole control of tenure for applied mathematicians.  In other words, even though MIT has a single math department, the applied and pure sides have considerable autonomy.  Indeed, this would prove to be helpful for resolving some political issues, as several combinatorialists (usually considered pure math) moved over to the applied side when they felt more welcomed there.

It's also striking how many of the interviewees note that they never thought they could make a living at mathematics.  It really shows you how modest expectations were during the Depression, when the ability to make a living from your brain was limited, even for some of the most gifted people on the planet.  Several had started out their education in chemistry, or physics, or engineering, precisely because they thought mathematics couldn’t provide them with an adequate living.  One person had originally planned to go back home to Iceland after undergrad and become a teacher at a gymnasium (secondary school).

Instead, the postwar boom opened up a world of possibilities.  They got instructorships at various places, including at MIT.  At the time, instructorships were intended as temporary positions, ineligible for promotion to assistant professorships.  But the math department got around this policy by first sending them off to another institution for another intervening instructorship.  In essence, this was the 1950s version of a postdoc, but with much better career prospects in an academia that was still expanding rapidly.

Personal dynamics

The development of the department really took place around interactions between people, much more so than in many of today’s scientific fields, which are often driven more by individual Principal Investigators overseeing vast fiefdoms of postdocs and grad students.  C. C. Lin was mentioned by many of the professors as having attracted a lot of applied mathematicians to the department, and even people who were not doing fluid dynamics retained fond memories of him.

Warren Ambrose is mentioned several times as the type of person who dragged people off to seminars and got a lot of cross-fertilization going between subdisciplines.  The bachelors in the department would hang around together and head off to restaurants in a group.  The married people would be taking turns hosting dinner parties after the weekly seminar.  The Boston-area mathematics community was very tight-knit, and if you wanted to, you could could go to a seminar followed by a party almost every day of the week.  But the social dynamics of the department changed over the years, and Segel asks the professors to speculate about the causes.  They tend to attribute it to a larger department; a graying faculty; more traveling, with people flying off to conferences all the time; and a shift in the larger society – as more women worked outside the home, it was no longer a given that a faculty wife would be able to throw parties frequently.

Mathematics has the reputation of being something that only young people can do, more so than other fields.  When people think they're past their mathematical prime, then they devote their energies to teaching or administration instead.  Arthur Mattuck freely admits, for example, that he essentially does nothing but teach nowadays.  He thinks deeply about curriculum issues, runs the TA training program, views and critiques videotapes of TA's in front of their classes, etc.  It's an interesting model: show your mathematical brilliance early in life, get tenure, publish a bunch of papers – and only then, focus your energies on curricular issues.  It seems to work out in math, but not necessarily in other fields.

Several of the interviewees had served their turn as chairman of the department, and they describe the constant battles for funding.  Mathematics has always been underfunded at MIT.  It began as a service department, so it was assigned the letter M rather than the Roman numerals that core departments at MIT received.  And even after it received a number, it remained underfunded compared to the engineering and science departments.  Even the NSF funding was a casualty of inflation during the 1970s.  Several department chairs talked about playing tricks with the budget: moving line items to and fro, making friends with a dean who had a pile of discretionary money, pitching temporary initiatives that the dean's office would then forget to defund after they ended.  That, plus grabbing space whenever it became available – such as when the Chemistry department moved into its own building.

Segel seems to have asked almost all of his interviewees about certain famous people.  Norbert Wiener is always mentioned as a strange personality, as is Gian-Carlo Rota.  And John Nash always comes up, but only as an aside.  Several people remember the work that John Nash did at MIT, but that work was not what won him the Nobel Prize in Economics (which he did at Princeton).

Personal impressions

I’ve always found oral histories to be fascinating, because they provide a snapshot of history that has not been filtered through a historian’s eyes. You get to read the transcripts and pick out details based on my own perspective, details that may fly right past someone else. It’s the next thing to interviewing the people yourself.

Since they’re two-way conversations, oral histories (even in transcript form) convey the speaker’s voice in a way that even an autobiography does not.  I took classes from many of these professors, and I found it most interesting to observe their mannerisms showing up in print in this book.  For example, Hartley Rogers has a precise and quirky way of speaking, complete with strange double entendres at unexpected times.  Alar Toomre’s lectures conveyed the curiosity and delight of a small child exploring the world around him (“neat” and “spiffy”).  And the attitude comes through in the interview – it wasn’t just an act affected for the lecture hall.

D. J. Kleitman was quite a surprise. In lecture, he tends to go off on detours, getting very excited and worked up about ideas in his brain, but leaving the class quite confused about what had just happened. The very epitome of an absent-minded professor, you might say. But in this book, he isn’t at all disorganized. I also found the extent of his consulting work to be surprising, for he’d never mentioned it in lecture. During the 1970s, he took full advantage of MIT's policy of allowing every professor to reserve one day per week for consulting work. Those were the gravy days of American business, before the heightened competition of globalization, and there were some easy pickings. For example, he found ways to take better advantage of government-stipulated rates on telephone leased lines, and took a commission on the amount he was able to save each company.


Segel’s book is a fascinating look at the postwar development of the MIT mathematics department, the individual personalities, and mathematics in general.  After all, a university department is defined by the people in it.  Like many oral histories, it was conducted in an attempt to capture a moment in time – a moment that can never be repeated.  One of the top math departments in the world can only rise once – because once you get to the top, you tend to stay there.

Postscript (28 October 2010)

In this case, there was also added impetus from the fact that a major generation shift was about to take place in the MIT math faculty.  In spring 2010, seven of the professors interviewed in this book retired.  Upon Alar Toomre’s hiring in 1963, department head Ted Martin noticed that he would be “the first one whose nominal retirement date – if he makes it through tenure – would be in the 21st century.” [Integral, Autumn 2010 PDF]  Well, he made it, plus eight years or so.  This was the post-Sputnik generation at MIT, and they collectively made the department what it is today.