The single greatest influence20 Nov 2011
Note: this is an old draft that I finally finished; there’s a line to indicate the major break between the original half and the additional part (not that the first part wasn’t rewritten a little, too).
Yesterday, when hearing the news that Steve Jobs passed away I stumbled upon his speech at Stanford from 2005. To be honest, I was a little disappointed but I guess it says something about him that even this mediocre speech left something behind: it made me think about different influences on my life, in particular, the influences on my development as a mathematician.
I was surprised to realize who I believe to be the single greatest influence on my development as a mathematician. You’d expect something like “that one math teacher” (which would be this one) or maybe “my first logic professor” (which would be this one). Then of course, you could say “my PhD advisors” (which would be her and him).
But that’s not the case. Don’t get me wrong, all of them had a serious impact on my development and without them I wouldn’t have come this far.
If I ask myself who the single greatest influence on me as a researcher was, then I must say: Stefanie Frick. (Funny, I can’t even google her properly, oh well).
Steffi was a student with Stefan Geschke in Berlin and Menachem Kojman in Be’er Sheva and she got her PhD about a year ahead of me. Unfortunately, she left research after her PhD. I still take the fact that nobody stopped her as a sign that the mathematical community values the wrong qualities in mathematicians (but this is another draft waiting to be completed).
After I had finished my Diplom in Munich, I was pretty much a formalist. I didn’t understand mathematics at all, especially I didn’t understand what it meant to be a mathematician (which is about as different as understanding art is from being an artist).
But I was quite good at manipulating formulas. Good enough in any case to be able to find a poorly financed PhD grant after moving to Berlin. And this is where I encountered Steffi.
Steffi was my opposite. I had a hard time understanding anything she wrote or said because she didn’t give me what my formalist mind needed to push formulas around. She seemed not to care at all about what I thought mathematics was about: formal proofs.
She was raw intuition.
Constantly pouring all her heart and mind and soul into her mathematics – it was shocking and, frankly, I couldn’t handle it.
I was annoyed! She was not giving me the details I needed, she was not giving enough formalisms. Instead, she was drawing pictures, she was talking like a waterfall; it was one giant stream of mathematical consciousness and I was drowning.
But I was fascinated. I had never encountered any mathematician like her before and I haven’t since.
It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t her, but me that was missing something, something fundamental. So I tried to find out – and I still try every day, struggling to learn what it really is to be a mathematician.
Having spent time with Steffi transformed me more than anything. She and her way of doing mathematics forced me to fundamentally re-evaluate what being a mathematician meant to me. Without the painful growth that followed this experience, I would never have made anything.
I haven’t been in touch in while, but thank you, Steffi!
- sam, 2011/11/22
This is a very nice post. This also happened to me (though I can’t pinpoint the precise moment) and probably happened to many of us. It’s the experience of being told how to solve a problem without actually being told any of the steps you would do to write a proof.
- Peter 2011/11/22 Thanks for your comment Sam. You make it sound so mundane 😉 But yes, I assume all mathematicians encounter this at some point, most likely much earlier than me. But we don’t talk about it and I think non-mathematicians are often not aware of this. I’d love to hear more of these stories from other people.