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In the Dark on the Sunny Side: A Memoir of an Out-of-Sight Mathematician

Mathematical Association of America
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On a summer day in 1944, five-year-old Larry Baggett used a paring knife to cut a string for a much-needed ammo sack for his slingshot. But, after violating the “Never cut toward yourself” rule, he accidentally sent the point of the knife into his right eye. And over the next few weeks, after multiple treatments and surgeries, he gradually lost sight in both eyes. What becomes of a blind kid in 1940s America? Does he become a jazz musician? A lawyer? A physicist?

The answer turns out to be: a math professor. In this memoir, Baggett details his path towards professorhood. But the path is not so much about the math, but about the normal and sometimes abnormal things that people go through, some of which — but not all — are unique to the blind.

As a blind child in the 40s and 50s, Baggett experienced the very beginning of the mainstreaming movement. Although his early schooling took place at the Perkins School for the Blind, for fourth grade he left the community of the blind to be educated at Gotha School. His teacher, Helen Watson, took on the job of educating this most uncommon of students. Her guidance, according to Baggett was “the first, and possibly the most important, milestone of [his] integration into the ordinary world of sighted people.” From that point on, his schooling (and eventual teaching) took place alongside his sighted peers.

Baggett tells of many experiences that are unique to the blind: working with a Braille typewriter, describing how music is written in Braille, trying to decide whether scraping or tapping is a better cane technique. He also describes his own personal synesthesia: the colors he assigns to letters and numbers. For example, F, P, and 4 are red.

But he also tells of experiences that are largely universal: playing in a band (the Mellow Tunes), enjoying a Louis Armstrong concert, running for student council president, and asking a girl out (although this didn’t occur until his senior year of high school, that still probably puts him slightly ahead of the curve for mathematicians).

After graduating high school, it was off to Davidson College, where a plan to become a physicist morphed into a degree in mathematics, thanks to early exposure to calculus. And after that, graduate school at the University of Washington, where the world got a whole lot bigger. Baggett was exposed to beatniks, communism, atheism, and harmonic analysis. And living in a larger city meant more opportunity for music. Larry Baggett was back in a jazz band. He was married. And he was on the United States Supreme Court docket in Baggett vs. Bullitt, a case involving loyalty oath requirement of universities.

In 1966, after earning his PhD, Baggett began his professorhood at the University of Colorado in Boulder. During his first few years of teaching after having two kids, his marriage failed, and he returned to the single life. Although this was a difficult time, he had many friends in the department to support him. This included Watson Fulks, who had gone through a divorce at the same time. They formed a mutual support group which included events like attending a showing of Deep Throat (in which Watson had to narrate the scenes which were lacking in dialog) and co-writing their textbook Fourier Analysis. (Having read the latter, but not seen the former, I don’t know if there’s a connection; perhaps Baggett will one day expound on this.) But after a few years, he met his current wife Christy Sweet, to whom this book is dedicated.

A final chapter is reserved for a brief recounting of Baggett’s career, including his ten PhD students. The first of these graduated in 1977, the next two were in the 80s, a mass exodus of six graduates occurred in the 1999–2001 range, and the last in 2006, the year in which Larry Baggett retired. And though his classroom days are over (with the exception of special appearances like the Bernard Lecture given in Fall 2013), he continues to make music with Christy in Boulder, Colorado.

Donald L. Vestal is Associate Professor of Mathematics at South Dakota State University. His interests include number theory, combinatorics, spending time with his family, and working on his hot sauce collection. He can be reached at Donald.Vestal(AT)

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Friday, November 9, 2012
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