Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fallen Giant

One of the giants of twentieth century mathematics fell last month at the age of 96. He was called "one of the last of the greatest who worked in nearly every field of mathematics." He was called by one student, "very unpredictable and very wise," and a colleague considered him the most interesting person he had ever known.

Gefland never finished high school and never attended college as an undergraduate student. He went to Moscow at age 16 or 17 and worked odd jobs but was always interested in mathematics, attended seminars, and at the age of 19 was admitted directly to graduate school of Moscow State University. He worked in extremely abstract areas of mathematics, which most people do not even know exist, but much of his work has profound application as well, and some medical imaging tests that most of us benefit from at some time in our lives (such as 3D images created by MRIs and CAT scans) are possible due to his work. It is said that he sought not just to teach the rules of math but also the beauty and exactness of his field (my kind of guy!). He also had a sense of humor and was quoted in a 2003 interview with the New York times as saying:
“Mathematics is a way of thinking in everyday life. It is important not to separate mathematics from life. You can explain fractions even to heavy drinkers. If you ask them, ‘Which is larger, 2/3 or 3/5?’ it is likely they will not know. But if you ask, ‘Which is better, two bottles of vodka for three people, or three bottles of vodka for five people?’ they will answer you immediately. They will say two for three, of course.”
His obituary (from which I took the information above) can be found at

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