Stories about Mathematicians

Russian physicist Igor Tamm won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1958. During the Russian revolution, he was a physics professor at the University of Odessa in Ukraine. Food was in short supply, so he made a trip to a nearby village in search of food. While he was in the village, a bunch of anti-communist bandits surrounded the town.

The leader was suspicious of Tamm, who was dressed in city clothes. He demanded to know what Tamm did for a living. He explained that he was a university professor looking for food. “What subject?,” the bandit leader asked. Tamm replied “I teach mathematics.”

“Mathematics?” said the leader. “OK. Then give me an estimate of the error one makes by cutting off a Maclaurin series expansion at the nnth term. Do this and you will go free. Fail, and I will shoot you.”

Tamm was not just a little astonished. At gunpoint, he managed to work out the answer. He showed it to the bandit leader, who perused it and then declared “Correct! Go home.” Tamm never discovered the name of the bandit.

From “Calculus makes you live longer”, in “100 essential things you didn’t know you didn’t know”, by John Barrow.

From Freeman Dyson:

Let me now introduce you to some notable frogs and birds that I knew personally.  I came to Cambridge University as a student in 1941 and had the tremendous luck to be given the Russian mathematician Abram Samoilovich Besicovitc has my supervisor. Since this was in the middle of World War Two, there were very few students in Cambridge, and almost no graduate students. Although I was only seventeen years old and Besicovitchwas already a famous professor, he gave me a great deal of his time and attention, and we became life-long friends. He set the style in which I began to work and think about mathematics. He gave wonderful lectures on measure-theory and integration, smiling amiably when we laughed at his glorious abuse of the English language. I remember only one occasion when he was annoyed by our laughter. He remained silent for a while and then said, “Gentlemen. Fifty million English speak English you speak. Hundred and fifty million Russians speak English I speak.”

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