Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Every Waking Moment

Professor Ky Fan, the eminent mathematician, died recently (March, 2010). Dr. Fan's doctoral advisor was the noted mathematician Maurice Frechet, and Frechet's advisor was the even more famous Jacques Hadamard. Frechet died in 1973 while I was working on my thesis under Dr. Fan’s direction. Shortly thereafter, someone pointed out to Fan that Hadamard had lived until 97, Frechet until 94, and concluded that Fan would live to be 91. Now, for most people in their late 50's (as Dr. Fan was at the time), being told you will live until age 91 would be good news. But Dr. Fan resented any limitation on his opportunity to do mathematics, so he replied testily, "How do you know it's a straight line?!?” And then, while sketching a “smile” shape in the air with his finger, continued “Maybe it's a parabola!"

Indeed, Dr. Fan lived to be 95.

* * *

Dr. Fan was widely known not merely for his mathematical achievements but also for his amazing dedication to mathematics. He was an inspiration to many generations of math students. Although he could be a bit intimidating at times, at some level you always understood that he was no more demanding of you than he was of himself, that if he appeared to be upset with you it was only because he wanted you to be able to enjoy doing mathematics to your fullest potential. Every once in a while in class, he would admonish us as follows, with his right fist pounding into his left palm to emphasize each of the last three words: “You must do mathematics…every…waking…moment!”

"Every Waking Moment" became the signature phrase by which Dr. Fan was known among grad students and their friends. A year or so after I finished at UCSB, the students had t-shirts made with Dr. Fan’s picture and this slogan. You can see the original photo (from an in-class 60th birthday party), plus a couple of us wearing the famous shirts in the present day, at picasaweb.google.com/dr.j.in.sb/KyFan_club#.

* * *

Because he was such an interesting character, a significant portion of the discourse among mathematics students and faculty at UCSB was about Dr. Fan. I’ve gathered here a few of the stories I remember, including some that I heard and some that I experienced. My hope is that others will add a few of the many others.

* * *

You can read a short biography of Dr. Fan at math.ucsb.edu/kyfan.php. The Spring, 2010 Mathematics News from UCSB had this version of the “Every Waking Moment” story:

[A] graduate student went to Fan for advice: “I don’t seem to be making any progress on my thesis, even though I’m working eight hours a day.” Fan replied “eight hours? Eight Hours? You must do math EVERY WAKING MOMENT!”

Perhaps there was once such a graduate student, but I wonder: it seems unlikely that anyone who knew Dr. Fan would say they were working on mathematics eight hours a day. Fourteen hours a day, maybe, but eight? You would certainly expect to get an earful for admitting to spending only eight hours a day on mathematics!

* * *

Some time in the 1960’s, UCSB instituted an annual award for faculty for outstanding achievements in research. Dr. Fan was the first recipient. At the award ceremony, he was expected to give a brief talk about his research to the entire faculty. “Let G be a locally compact topological group with Haar measure,” he began. “For those of you unfamiliar with higher mathematics, you may think of Lebesgue measure on the real line.”

I first heard this story at a Math Dept party at Prof. Andy Bruckner’s house. Andy told the story with perhaps a dozen people gathered round, some math people, some spouses/significant others. At the punch line, all the math people burst out laughing (indeed, I know several people – me included – who think this is the funniest Dr. Fan story of all), but, of course, the non-math people had very puzzled looks on their faces.

I suspect that many Dr. Fan stories are embellishments or outright fabrications due to Andy. I’m told that Paul Halmos, who joined the UCSB faculty a couple of years after I left, once said “When Andy tells a story, you have to divide by ten and change the sign.”

* * *

On one of my visits to Santa Barbara in the 1980’s, Dr. Fan invited me over to his home. He took me into his study, and with great pride, showed me his latest papers. Then, the pep talk. “Some people’s hobby is to go to the beach,” he confided. “Some people’s hobby is to play tennis. But my hobby [rising crescendo], MY hobby, is MATHEMATICS!”

* * *

Towards the end of my second year at UCSB (Spring, 1972), I decided I would spend the summer traveling in Europe. I had never been abroad, I had several friends going at that time as well – it just seemed like a good time, despite it being in the middle of my graduate work. Dr. Fan had already agreed to be my doctoral advisor, and I was reluctant to tell him, since I imagined he would see that as a lack of dedication on my part. I put it off as long as I could, but finally I worked up the courage to let him know. He was a bit taken aback, I could see, but didn’t say anything right away. I added that I would be doing a lot of traveling by rail and that I would bring a few math texts with me and study aboard the trains. He finally said, “Travel is good for a young man, broadens your horizons. How long are you going for?”
“Eight weeks.”
“How about four?”

I told him I’d already bought the plane tickets. I did go for eight weeks, and lugged three ponderous math texts around with me (Hewitt and Ross was one; don’t remember the others). Never opened any of them.

Many years later, on a visit to Santa Barbara, Dr. Fan and his wife took me out to lunch. (I believe it was the only time I saw his wife for more than a few moments.) Dr. Fan was quite convivial, and the conversation turned to many things other than mathematics. At one point, he said, “Do you remember the time you told me you were going to go to Europe for eight weeks, and I said ‘How about four’?” And he laughed and laughed.

* * *

This one is more about Andy Bruckner, though it illustrates the hold that Dr. Fan had over his students. When I was in my first year at UCSB, a number of us were taking Fan’s topology course and Andy’s analysis course at the same time. One day about halfway through the Fall term, Andy introduced a few of us new students to another member of the mathematics faculty. “I rate all the students in my analysis class with a number between 90 and 100,” Andy told the other professor. “That number represents, of the total time they spend on Fan’s class and my class, the percentage of time they spend on Fan’s class.”

* * *

I happened to be alone with Dr. Fan in the elevator going up to the Math Dept one day.
“Are you married?” He asked me out of the blue. “Having a wife makes it easier to spend more time on mathematics.”
“No,” I replied.
“Ah, no girl friend?” inquired Dr. Fan a bit sadly. I just sort of shrugged. He lit up and exclaimed, “Maybe too many girl friends!” and got a good laugh out of his own joke.

* * *

These written stories don’t capture part of the charm of hearing Dr. Fan stories: everyone who knew him just had to imitate his voice and accent when quoting him. He spoke English with a charming Chinese-French accent, sprinkled with some pronunciations that were unique to him. His voice was often a bit guttural and very forceful, and, of course, he spoke with great enthusiasm. One time in topology class he kept talking about a “who-gee” space. It took quite a while to figure out that “who-gee” was his version of “huge”.

This next story turns on Dr. Fan’s unusual pronunciation of a particular word. The first time I ever went into Dr. Fan’s office was quite an adventure. I was waiting outside his office with another first year graduate student, who I’ll call O’Hara. I forget why, but Fan had summoned O’Hara and me there. O’Hara was quite apprehensive about the whole thing, having heard the usual horror stories about Fan yelling at people. Indeed, as we waited outside, we could hear Fan yelling at the student who was in his office at that point. This, naturally, made O’Hara even more apprehensive. Then it was our turn. No yelling, a rather uneventful visit, but at the end Fan told us a long story, about the well-know mathematician Jacques Hadamard (Fan’s Ph.D. advisor’s Ph.D. advisor). The story was this:

It seems that toward the end of his career, Hadamard wanted to emigrate to the U.S. At one particular university, while waiting outside the office of the head of the Math Dept., Hadamard noticed a picture of himself hanging on a wall filled with pictures of famous mathematicians. When Hadamard met with the department head, that man apologized about the lack of funding at the university but promised that he would do everything he could to see if he could make a position available. Fan made this into a rather long story; I forget all the details, but the word “promise” was featured prominently. The conclusion of the story was that the next day, when Hadamard came back for a second meeting, the department head apologized profusely but said that he would not be able to offer Hadamard a position. On his way out of the office, Hadamard noticed that his own picture had been removed from the wall of pictures of famous mathematicians!

Now, that didn’t strike me as that funny a story, but O’Hara just burst out laughing, which of course made Fan happy. When O’Hara and I got outside of Fan’s office, O’Hara asked me, “What does ‘fro-mize’ mean?” “Fro-mize” was Fan’s pronunciation of “promise”; it immediately became clear to me that O’Hara, not having understood that that word was “promise”, had not understood Fan’s story at all, and his laughter at the punch line was simply the result of his relief that our meeting was over and that we were going to escape without getting yelled at!