Perhaps it is because our profession is so outré that we mathematicians derive such perverse enjoyment from telling tales. Gossip is almost never considered a vice among our ranks, unless it’s particularly malicious, and eccentricity, which appears to be so rampant a trait with us, is generally ranked as both a virtue and a genetic inheritance (pace Keith Devlin and his “math gene”). In any case, mathematicians are very often story-tellers, and, like all accomplished raconteurs, generally prefer a good tale to a true one. Nonetheless, truth is stranger than fiction and the tales in Steve Krantz’ Mathematical Apocrypha have been checked and double-checked: says Krantz in his Preface, “Most of the stories here are in fact verifiable, and have been checked (in the fashion of investigative reporters) with other witnesses.” So much the better, then: the real scoop!
When I knew Steve Krantz in my student days (he was a young rookie assistant professor at the time) he already evinced a host of symptoms of raconteurism, as well as a concomitant off-beat sense of humor, making him a favorite with students and colleagues alike. He admits in the aforementioned Preface: “I have spent my entire adult life hanging around academics, and have certainly never encountered a group that is so hell-bent on telling stories about each other as are mathematicians. With this book I plant my flag as a story-teller.” Manifestly Steve has spectacularly lived up to his early promise (in both senses of the phrase: he is of course also a very accomplished complex analyst!): the Apocrypha is a terrifically entertaining compendium of tales about mathematicians of all sorts, of different eras, of different places. Some stories are necessarily n-th hand, n large, others are first or second-hand. They’re uniformly entertaining and some are down-right hilarious. Here are a few samples:
Speaking of Einstein, I found one tale in the Apocrypha which must be false, and, upon my pointing this out to Krantz, learned from him that others had also noted this particular story had serious problems. It’s a good tale, of course: [p. 67] “One of the Einstein legends concerns an event just after his arrival at the Institute for Advanced Study in
Mathematical Apocryphais a book that is impossible to put down, and succeeds spectacularly in its light-hearted objectives. Its 200 or so pages are subdivided into six parts, carrying such titles as “Great Foolishness” and “Great Pranks” — irresistible stuff right from the frontispiece. There are a large number of pictures, too, including a marvelously feline shot of Kovalevskaya herself on p. 125. Just get it and have fun!
Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles