Saturday, July 26, 2008

Aldo Andreotti's Math Lesson

It was long ago in Pisa. Scuola Normale Superiore, Science Division. The students were waiting anxiously for the famous geometer, Aldo Andreotti, a legend of modern day italian mathematics.
The place: a lecture room, in the old Palazzo dei Cavalieri. Time: evening, before dark.
November, perhaps. Perhaps not.
At a certain point, a clumsy, chubby fellow shows up and announces that Prof. Andreotti will be late, and that he will start the lecture in his stead. There was nothing remarkable about it, the fellow writes formulae monotonously, one after the other, on the wide chalky blackboard.
Time passes, endless, tedious time.
Then, suddenly, as if materializing out of thin air, Professor A. shows up. He stares at the formulae, dismisses briskly the chubby and clumsy fellow, and begins writing, as if talking to himself.
He may have continued for a few minutes, he may have asked a few questions, I have no clear recollection.
Once again, as suddenly as he had appeared, he stops.
He sits on his chair, his jaws contracted, and looks at all of us, with a deep, almost annoyed, penetrating eye.
There is a sense of oppression, of thick clouds gathering, a palpable mute tension.
Professor A. finally open his mouth and utters the following words, in a strong tuscan accent (how strange it sounded in that momentous event):
- Let me tell you one thing. Math is hard, very hard. I worked all my life to understand it, and it is still hard. Each day. You must be prepared to work just as hard, or you better not waste your time, better go out and work in the fields-
(the last sentence, -andate a lavorar' ne' campi - echoes in my mind like a harsh, ironic mantra)
Then he pauses, an unfathomable pain engraved in his face, he toils with something on the desk, perhaps a cheap packet of cigarettes:
-The lesson is over-
I will never forget that class, Professor Andreotti, as long as I live. It took me so many years to understand it, but now I know. You were right, math is hard, and so is everything worth while in this world.You better be prepared to do your best, or let it go, before it is too late to regret it.
PS For the cognoscenti, Aldo Andreotti appears in the monumental and very idiosyncratic mathematical autobiography of Alexander Grothendieck, Recoltes et Semailles. Andreotti is one of the rare individuals whom AG seems to remember with affections, from his previous academic life.


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