Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mathematician and Art Collector

In the aftermath of his passing (January 30th 1998), two tight and a bit idiosyncratic communities independently mourned Professor Samuel Eilenberg: mathematicians and art collectors said goodbye to one of their brightest stars.

For several decades this remarkable man had shifted, with no apparent effort, back and forth between two worlds as far apart as our modern compartmentalized culture would permit: in the first one, populated with commutative diagrams, abelian groups, towers of topological spaces, he was simply and only Sammy to everyone. In the other he painstakingly bought, sold, exchanged, assessed Burmese statuettes, Chinese ceramic, south east Asia religious artifacts of all kinds and sorts, all the while being known as the Professor. And professor he certainly was, but of what? Of math, of course, but I bet you that most of his fellow dealers wouldn't know, and wouldn't care either. He was The Professor, a darn good dealer.

I hear a voice rising:- What is the big deal? Aren't there thousands of individuals out there having a career and a hobby? - Well, sure there are, but there is a difference, a big difference, in fact two big differences.

First, Eilenberg was extremely successful at both. As a mathematician he literally changed the course of many fields of research, not to mention the fact that he was also at the very heart of countless initiatives and relentlessly promoting a mathematical enterprise of gargantuan proportions. In art, starting from virtually nothing (he immigrated in a rush from his native Poland, fleeing the Nazis), he built a unique collection worth several millions at the time of his donation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

Second, he tried (and apparently succeeded remarkably well) to keep his two identities as separated as he could. He was two-in-one-body: a Mathematician and an Art Collector.

How did he manage to handle his dual life? What was the hidden thread between the two passions that ruled his life? What kind of mind shift (if any) did he need in sliding from one world to the next? Why did he keep his two roles so far apart?

So many questions....

Few weeks ago I called one of his students, asking for answers. There was only one: -I am afraid I cannot help. Sammy did not volunteer any information- To be sure I expected it, but I have to confess I was a bit disappointed. Somehow, I was still clinging to the tenuous hope that the veil would be lifted and I could peep inside Sammy's mysterious life...

In the last few years, after a long neglect, laymen books on mathematicians and outstanding math problems have cropped up at a steady pace (who hasn't heard of A beautiful Mind? ). I hope that someone, with a lot of time available and a good deal of patience (a bit of detective skills wouldn't hurt), will inquire into Sammy's story and write it down for the rest of us.

Till then, we are left with a great mathematical legacy, and a treasure trove at the Metropolitan Museum. Till then, we can just think one more time of a truly enigmatic man:

Sammy Eilenberg, Mathematician & Art Collector.

PS The photo of Sammy with his penetrating & pensive eyes at the top of this post renders full justice to the man (I know, as I was under his scrutiny for 30 very long seconds). However, there was another side of him, lighter, brighter, and a bit ironic too, as marvellously witnessed by this great pic at a Math Conference, in 1992 (please notice the big cigar & the exotic ring).


Sunflower said...

It is amazing that both pictures of the same person convey very different qualities of the same person. If I were to meet both these pictures as separate individuals in a coffee shop , I know that I would briefly look at the mathematician but smile socially at the art collector.

Interestingly, I have a great end to synthesize my varied interests. I wonder which is more common among polymaths: to keep their varied lives separate or to synthesize these sides at least for themselves?

Polymathicus said...

The second pic was taken at a math conference, so (nominally) this is still Sammy the Mathematician. However, I think you have hit some point here: the fellow in the pic looks and feels like an art collector. This is not to say that Sammy was always brooding (he wasn't), but one can see a streak of healthy hedonism which reminds of a wordly man.

As to your excellent question, I have no general answer. I can only speak of myself, and say that I DO strive to merge my threads (it is not always easy), at least in my own mind. Other polymaths may differ on this issue.