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… and he tells me the conclusion

29 July, 2008

Posting links to old favourites today, since my plan to work on a longish post about maths education and innumeracy (and why tackling the latter is only a part of the former) has stalled for the moment.

Anyway: some time last year, I chanced upon a 1996 interview with John Isbell, which I found quite engaging. I’m something of a sucker for anecdotes where mathematicians reminisce about the communities they’ve been part of, especially (as in Isbell’s case) where I have passing acquaintance with the corresponding research area. Here’s a clip, as they say; watch out for the cameo appearance at the end.

I could do a tiny bit more with my methods, and, wham! Steve found the right method. It was in a paper of Walfisz, and it finished the job; Dirichlet had less than half solved the problem… probably not losing any sleep over it… and Isbell and Schanuel finished it. That’s in Proc. AMS 60 (1976). 65-67, if any of your readers want the theorem. It’s a very nice theorem, but there’s a little story about it that must be told. At the next annual meeting of the AMS, the first evening I go into a restaurant with a couple of other guys, and there is Paul Erdös coming in with a couple of other guys. (Maybe gals, I don’t recall). So I say “Paul! let j = o(n), etc. etc.” I get through the hypothesis, and I pause for breath. And he tells me the conclusion. So I say, “Oh, my God. Is that your theorem?” “No,” he says. “It’s a nice theorem. I never heard about it; but if there is a theorem, and that is the hypothesis, then this must be the conclusion.

Needless to say, I get worried from time to time that something similar will happen during the introduction of a talk I’m giving…

(For those with access to MathSciNet, the Isbell-Schanuel paper mentioned above can be found here.)

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