Tuesday, September 07, 2004

A tale of three Jims

  1. He taught my first undergraduate math course, a class on real analysis that gave most of us pause. When he explained things, he would lower his head and shake it from side to side, looking at you over his glasses. He gave us problems with the rejoinder That'll keep you out of trouble for the weekend! He constantly broke his chalk; and, like most of the professors I know who break chalk in mid-explanation, it caused him no end of irritation. In irritation, he once tossed a piece of chalk across the front of the room, sidehand, from where he was standing at the door. The chalk bounced four times; each time, the remaining chalk fragments snapped in half, so that a moment later, sixteen bits of chalk collided with the wall. It was all we could do to keep from laughing, but we managed it. He looked at the chalk for a moment, then returned to his lecture.

    He had a chair in his office for visitors: it was a drab upholstered affair, probably as old as I was; it looked like it would probably be comfortable. But it had no bottom to speak of, and so I would sit, precariously perched on the four inch width of board that formed the entire solid seating surface, and ask questions about tensors and algebraic k-theory. I used to ask his opinion on math courses at the start of the semester. That's a good course, he would say; take something with this guy, another time. Number theory! It's an interesting area, but here's the book they use for the undergrad course. You've had abstract algebra, and I know what you know. You could probably cover this material in a weekend, and a weekend spent in a bar, at that. When I told him I was going to graduate school to study numerics, he said numerical analysis!? in the tone most people would reserve for utterances like you're eating cockroaches!? But then he thought for a moment and said there was undoubtedly interesting stuff there, and I would do fine. Just don't forget the math.

    He gave us a homework entitled Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; one problem for each of us. He subbed for the graduate topology course once when I was taking graduate algebra; one of my classmates who took both courses summarized the lecture with the words Who was that masked man? It was in his class that I first really experienced mathematics as I see it now.

  2. He has a beard and glasses, an occasionally owlishly-serious expression, and the ability to cover technical material at a phenomenal rate. I know people who speak faster, but most of them don't really say that much with their words, or become incomprehensible as their rate of speech increases. He doesn't become less comprehensible, but sometimes he saturates his listeners -- too much information, too fast. He covers his book in one semester; most others teaching from the same text only go through half of it.

    The problems in his book are labeled easy, medium, and hard, and it was those labels which first clued me in on how differently we think about mathematics. Some of his medium problems, I find easy or hard; some of the hard or easy problems, I would call medium; and rarely I'll find something that he thinks is hard to be easy, or vice-versa. He is an extraordinary algebraist, far more so than I. His favored languages are Fortran 77 and Matlab.

    He seems to be constantly under threat of a deadline, but usually manages anyhow. He drinks an immense amount of coffee, usually as lattes. I have seen him look stressed, but only once have I seen him look fatigued -- it was in a lecture, and I thought he might have fallen asleep, until he sat up and asked a penetrating question. Each of his students works on something different; but somehow he manages to keep up with them.

  3. He was trained as an engineer, but was not happy working as one. He's a little shorter than I am, and nearly as lanky. I'm not sure he eats much more regularly. His passion is mountain climbing. His accent changes when he speaks with his grandmother on the phone; it changes from an American accent to a New Zealand accent. He's sometimes happy, sometimes brooding, rarely in the middle, always sardonic. He's laid back, with a quirky -- though sometimes ungracious -- sense of humor. He calls me guy, and I call him sir, and we get along just fine even when neither of us have the slightest clue what the other is talking about.

    He plays croquet, likes to have a beer with friends, enjoys rap music but listens to NPR when he's in a car -- which is rarely. He usually bikes or walks for transportation. He sometimes watches classic Star Trek re-runs on the Sci Fi channel, and sometimes I join him. He asked me today whether my shirt (which says Eschew Obfuscation) was geeky or nerdy. I told him I wasn't sure, and then explained what it meant. I wish you hadn't done that, he said, That wasn't the question I asked, was it? I think he was joking; but he delivers his jokes in a deadpan manner: the perfect straight man.