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!


  1. Dennis,
    Your recollections are great; it is ironic that Dr. Fan has been the source of so much humor, along with a bit of intimidation. I had taken Dr. Fan's topology course my first year (1972/73).
    Another student, Bill Levine, had roused Dr. Fan's ire by asking a less than perfect question, and followed up with a less than perfect continuation. My impression was that Bill would never get off Dr. Fan's ziplist, but in fact Bill poured it on, and by the third quarter he was the ace of the class - and recognized as such by Dr. Fan. I also recall a take-home midterm in the winter quarter; it consisted of around 4 problems. I got engrossed in one problem, and spent every waking moment wrestling with it (to the detriment of my overall score on the test). Still confounded about 1 AM, I hit the sack, and started puzzling through the details again. After about 10 minutes, a Eureka! moment - I had the solution. I deliberated about getting up and writing it down, but the answer was so clear I knew it would be there in the morning. It was. I wrote it up, and went on fruitlessly with my remaining time to the other problems. A few days later Dr. Fan was about to return all the tests. I knew my score would be poor, and was a bit in the dumps. Dr. Fan commented on each of the problems. When he got to THE problem, I vividly recall him teasing the class by saying "This a very hard problem ... only one person get right answer! Who you think get right answer? Any guess? Ha? Ha? (pause) Mr. Johhhhhnzzzzzon". That made my life as a grad student.

    However, it also convinced me to find opportunities for employment outside of pure math. At the start of the second year I attempted to take Dr. Glenn Culler's class in digital signal processing. Dr. Fan was the graduate advisor, and I needed his approval. No way. I was a bit annoyed, and tried again at the start of my third year. This time Dr. Fan agreed. I recall him wistfully comment that it made sense. Sadly for me, Dr. Culler only taught the class a few weeks, and then had to give it up due to his involvement with his startup company.

  2. I'm including comments from Mark Frolli:

    A couple more pictures for your Ky Fan gallery.
    - the T-shirt order letter dated April 9, 1975 to Yes Art in NYC, the price was $8 per shirt
    - the T-shirt signup sheet with 22 names and 25 total T-shirts with names in the original hand

    - I didn't buy a T-shirt; I guess I couldn't afford it..
    - The address on Pardall Rd is the apartment above the IV Bookstore and the IV Foot Patrol
    (we had some good parties there)
    - It's amazing that the T-shirts ever got made...

    I always remember that there were two Ky Fan sayings:
    1. Every Waking Moment, and
    2. When you get confused, go out and play...
    Of course these are contradictory statements...

    I have this vague recollection of an incident in the 74-75 Math 226 Topology class in South Hall
    where he was ranting on one of the students in the front row who was confused about
    something and came up with saying #2... It was probably a joke... but he wasn't laughing.

    I still have a three ring notebook which is a handwritten transcription of the book that Dr.
    Fan wrote on the chalk boards. Every class he would erase all the boards on all three sides
    of the room (the fourth was windows) and then start in the front left top corner and not
    stop until he was at the back of the room right bottom corner.

    There is a three page single spaced table of contents, with the major headings:
    Chapter 0: Set Theory
    Chapter I: Topological Structures
    Chapter II: Uniform Structures
    Chapter III: Metrizable, Normal and Paracompact Spaces

    at least 120 numbered pages in the "book" and many more in
    problems and exercises and copies of all the midterms and finals...

    -Mark Frolli

  3. A student entered the classroom at 9:01. Professor Fan stopped his lecture and turns to the student sternly saying "You think you are only one minute late? No! You are 14 minutes late!" and walks around to each student's desk saying "You are one minute late for this man, one minute late for this one, ...".

  4. Professor Fan walked into an undergrad Complex Variables class and wrote on the board the sequence of integers 6, 22, 45, 54, 63.

    Turning to the students with a big grin, he asked "What these numbers have in common?"

    Having grown accustomed (and fond) of his style, I replied "They are the exercises that you do NOT wish us to do."

    "THAT'S RIGHT!" He proclaimed. "THEY ARE WRONG!" and laughed.

  5. One of the Complex Variables students once asked Professor Fan if we could have an extra day to work on the assignment.

    Those of us who knew Fan, began to duck and cover in anticipation of the expected explosion.

    To our surprise, Fan had misunderstood the request and thought that the young man was asking for additional problems to work on.

    "No, no." Fan said with a concerned look. "That would be too much work."

    We all breathed a sigh of relief.

  6. I can confirm SteveJ's experience regarding how Professor Fan handed back exam results. First, he would go over the answers in about 10 minutes, where we had struggled for hours (or days with take-homes).

    But he also had a table in his hand with the results of each student on each question. "Mr. Sandy, you got number 5 wrong!" or "Mr. Mustafa, you got number 7 correct, but it weighs a pound!".

    No one was immune from (valid) criticism.

    One guy was not making it in the class. Fan was often on his case when calling on him during lectures.

    During the midterm, the guy could only answer one question on the exam.

    When Fan handed him back his exam, Fan looked at his results table and said in a rather kindly voice. "You only got one problem correct. But your proof was the best. You should apply yourself." Suddenly grinning, Fan proclaimed "I know what your problem is. You like to party too much. Right!?"

    Fan moved on to his next victim and the guy leaned over towards me and another student and quietly admitted "He's got me cold!".

  7. At the end of a lecture, one of the students asked Professor Fan if he could show them an example related to the homework.

    Fan replied, shaking his head, "You should not want me to do that. Mathematics is like a toy. You don't want anyone to show you how to play with your toy. You want to play with it by yourself. Mathematics is like that."

  8. In 1975-76 I took Prof. Fan's year-long graduate topology course. In the second quarter, an unfamiliar student came in (late) and asked him, "Is this Math 226B?" Prof. Fan guardedly said, "Yes." The student sat down and after a few minutes asked a question so basic that, although I don't remember it specifically, it could as well have been, "What is an open set?" This infuriated the good professor, who raised his voice and said, "You cannot come in here in the middle of the term and ask such a question! Mathematics is like a sky-scrapper [that's how he pronounced it]! The first floor depend on the basement! The second floor depend on the first floor! The hundredth floor depend on the 99th floor! Mathematics is like a SKY-SCRAPPER!" Offended, the student stood up and started to walk out, and turned around to say, "You--you are no teacher!" Ky Fan responded, "I am no teacher--FOR YOU!"

  9. This may be apocryphal, but when I was at UCSB, he was reported to have said, "Everyone should have a hobby. Mine is linear algebra."

  10. My favorite Ky Fan admonition: "Your mind must cut like knife!"

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