Mathematician pens book about famous mathematician foibles and funnies

Silly savants

Steven G. Krantz, Ph.D., professor of mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis, illuminates mathematicians’ very human brilliance in his book, Mathematical Apocrypha Redux, his sequel to his successful, original Mathematical Apocrypha, published in 2002, both by the Mathematical Association of America.

Steven Krantz
Steven Krantz

The book is a collection of anecdotes about famous mathematicians and their frivolity, wisdom and situations, revealing more vulnerable, human versions of the remote and often eccentric savants.

Krantz, who, in mid-career, has published a remarkable 53 books, once wrote: “Being a mathematician is a bit like being a manic depressive: you spend your life alternating between giddy elation and black despair,” lives a very normal, public life. His office is filled with toys and gadgets; his head with stories and jokes — and math. He’s approachable, engaging, funny and a widely recognized mathematical whiz himself.

“The truth is, there isn’t anybody who can productively think about mathematics more than four or five hours a day,” Krantz says. “You just can’t do it. So I spend the rest of the day writing books. Other people spend the rest of the day banging their head against a wall. I decided I’d rather do something productive with my time.”

Krantz received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1971 from the University of California, Santa Cruz before he could legally drink a beer. In 1974, at age 23, he was awarded his Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University. That same year he joined the faculty of UCLA as an assistant professor, moving to Pennsylvania State University as associate professor in 1981. He joined the Washington University faculty as professor of mathematics in 1986.

Many have recognized his writing prowess: Krantz has received the coveted Chauvenet Prize of the Mathematics Association of America (MAA) in 1992 for expository writing, and the Beckenbach Prize of the MAA in 1994 for his book, Complex Analysis: The Geometric Viewpoint, published in 1992. So far, Mathematical Apocrypha Redux has been very well received.

A Krantz sampling

In the book, Krantz offers insight into the lives of many dozens of mathematicians, while minimizing the mathematical lexicon. “I really try to make the stories accessible to a broad audience,” he says.

And what’s more accessible than stories? In Krantz ‘s own words, here is a sampling of the hundreds of anecdotes:

• One day, a very famous mathematician at Princeton University named Willie Feller and his wife were trying to move a large table from their living room into their dining room. But they couldn’t get it through the door. They struggled and they struggled and they just couldn’t do it, and finally, in exhaustion and frustration, Feller sat down and did a mathematical derivation to prove that the table couldn’t be gotten through the door. Meanwhile, as he was doing that, his wife got the table through the door.

• My friend Ken Rosen is most successful textbook authors around — he has a very successful book on discrete math. And this book is actually used in Kuwait. In fact, the Kuwaitis had some trouble with this book’s section on logic. And one of the things you do in sentential logic is you teach the students to analyze the truth value of the various sentences. There are some famous examples that you always use. So, one of the examples in this book is: if one plus one equals three, then God does not exist. Another example is: if two plus two equals four, then pigs can fly. He has these in his book. And the Kuwaitis were very unhappy with him because they thought the first sentence was blasphemous, and the second sentence somehow associated the unclean pig with God. They had to undergo some negotiation.

• John Nash gave a talk in 2002, after the movie “A Beautiful Mind” had come out. It was very well attended. I think 2000 people went to the talk, and it was a very technical talk. The next day, my friend from Sweden, Christer Kiselman, went up to John Nash and congratulated him on the talk. He said, “Gee, I was very pleased to see how many people came out to your talk.” And Nash said, “Well there’s this movie starring Russell Crowe that seems to have gotten a lot of attention.”

Apocrypha, the sequel

Unlike his first book, which was written entirely from his own experience at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. (home to Einstein and to many of the country’s famous intellectuals ), these stories were assembled after many hours of diligent research.

“I put every story I knew in the first book, and I thought, what am I going to do with a second book? ” Krantz says. “Well, I had to do a lot of research, is what I had to do. So I worked like a dog to assemble good stories for the second book. But the good news is, everybody agrees the second book is much better than the first book.”

Of his writing regiment, Krantz says that while he might spend three to four hours writing on a teaching day, he’ll spend up to eight to ten hours writing when he has the time.

“I’m lucky in that I don’t have problems with carpel tunnel, I don’t have problems with my back, I don’t have headaches, so I can just work,” he says.

His writing affects people worldwide: other professors read excerpts from his book of funny anecdotes to their rapt college kids. He’s authored a how-to book for young people hoping to become mathematicians

“This is all the stuff I wish somebody had told me 30 years ago,” he says, of that work.

Krantz’s writing life has brought him into contact with legions of people from all over. One, having read his quote about the ups and downs of being a mathematician in her mathematics textbook, was even inspired to write his biography. That was even before she knew that Krantz published a whopping 12 books last year.

Another contacted him from prison.

“An inmate at Huntsville Penitentiary in Texas — arguably the worst prison in the country — contacted me because he was working his way through my real analysis book and he had some questions,” Krantz recalled. “This guy turned out to be quite bright and we conducted considerable correspondence over quite a long period of time. I was quite impressed by the progress he made. He is now out and trying to re-establish himself in the computer business.”