Isadore Singer

BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

I’m at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum at the moment, where they’ve brought 39 winners of the biggest prizes in math and computer science together with young researchers, modeled on the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. The founder of the software giant SAP, Klaus Tschira, has started this for the first time and plans for it to be an annual event. I’ve been brought here to blog for them, and I must say, though being a science writer can have its challenging side, sometimes, it’s pretty darn sweet. Heidelberg is a beautiful, ancient city, the talks have been quite good, and I’m having a grand time.

The day I arrived, we went for a walk in an exhausted haze and came upon kiosks in one of the squares with huge black-and-white portraits of the laureates. One of the faces I knew: It was Isadore Singer, who won the Abel Prize. He was one of my professors in graduate school, and I found myself smiling back at him:



It’s not so obvious in this black-and-white photo, but he has a large port-wine stain on his face, about which he never seemed to have the slightest embarrassment or hesitation. In fact, his overall presentation was always quite dapper and refined. Reading the description of him on the kiosk in the plaza, I was kind of shocked to realize that he’s now nearly 90. It makes sense — he was certainly not a young man when I knew him, and it’s now been almost 20 years — but he had seemed vigorous and ageless to me, someone who would never be 90.

He taught me differential geometry during my very first semester in grad school, and he invited the whole class out to his house the day before Thanksgiving. He lived outside Boston, in a grand, elegant house with enormous grounds. It felt like he lived in an entirely different world from the rest of us, a bunch of nerds in our uniforms of jeans and hiking boots. He seemed so different even from the other professors I knew, who seemed pretty much like grown-up versions of us. But this guy was cut from a different cloth.

Before dinner, we all went for a walk. One of my fellow students had just arrived from the Soviet Union, and although he was a delightful young man really, at that moment, he was struggling to find his place in the culture in the US and felt insecure, and, well, he didn’t handle that so well. Hand stroking his chin, he asked Singer, “Who do you think is the finest Russian mathematician?” Singer got a disgusted look on his face and said, “I think that’s a ridiculous question. I don’t think in those terms at all.” But even that wasn’t enough to discourage my classmate: “What about Gelfand? Don’t you think Gelfand might be the finest Russian mathematician?” Singer’s disgust deepened. “I suppose if you were to choose a name, that’d be as good a one to choose as any,” he declared, and walked briskly away.

Singer’s wife had trained as a chef when they lived in France, and we were treated to a meal that stunned me, especially since I knew she would be cooking an even grander feast the next day for Thanksgiving itself.

I didn’t distinguish myself in his class. There was no text, and I was terrible at following math lectures. I always needed time to sit down and work through it for myself, slowly and carefully, really making it my own — but with no text, and only the most tenuous understanding of what he’d said, it felt pretty hopeless. Then I left research mathematics, and I haven’t seen Singer since.

I looked for him at the opening ceremony, when the laureates were welcomed into hall as everyone stood and clapped, a level of pomp I’d never witnessed in the mathematical community before. I imagined that most of the mathematicians walking in felt kind of embarrassed at the fuss, but I figured that Singer would walk in as elegant as ever, utterly comfortable. But he never came.

During the opening ceremony, Klaus Tschira mentioned that they had been disappointed that many fewer math laureates agreed to come than computer science laureates. I found myself kind of unsurprised. When I was a graduate student, I certainly felt hesitant to ask my professors about things I hadn’t yet learned about, I suppose partly out of fear of making a fool of myself as my classmate had, acting as though I possessed a knowledge and sophistication I lacked. I can’t imagine, for example, having asked Singer about the famous Atiyah-Singer Index Theorem that he won his Abel Prize for. The issue is partly that it just takes a whole lot of work to learn these things. I suspect that to have explained it to me would have required a couple of semesters of work. It felt like what I needed to do was just keep my nose to the grindstone and learn a whole ton of stuff, and that was the way to earn my professors’ notice. The idea of networking with them was utterly foreign.

Furthermore, math is so specialized that even full-grown fellow mathematicians in different fields probably don’t understand one another’s work. There’s likely hardly even a basis for a mathematical conversation between them. Many mathematicians don’t even go to the big annual math meeting for this reason (unless their department is hiring and so they need to participate in the “meet market”), figuring they won’t learn anything relevant to their work. I don’t know whether this is an inevitable outcome of the enormous edifice that mathematics has become, or whether it’s an indication that mathematics has become absurdly inwardly focused and resistant to collaboration. But I can imagine a conference with grad students and postdocs from through mathematics and computer science might not seem so appealing, though I don’t know if that’s the reason for the poor showing of mathematicians.

Singer did seem like the kind of guy who could, though. Heck, he even worked with physicists!

Then Tschira said that at the last minute, several Laureates had had to cancel for health reasons, and that they all happened to be mathematicians. (He then made a weak joke — vigorously denied by Ingrid Daubechies, head of the International Mathematics Union — about how he wondered if this might not be an indication that mathematics is bad for one’s health.) Singer had clearly been scheduled to come, so I suspect he’s among that number.

I hope he’s OK. He’s one of the people who shaped me, an ancestor of sorts. I feel his presence, and his absence. I continued to stand for an extra moment after all the other laureates had filed in, just in case he might pop around the corner with his smooth, elegant stride. I kept clapping, just for him.

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is a freelance math and science writer who writes the Math Trek column at Science News ( She also writes frequently for Discover Magazine and Wired. She studied algebraic topology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

1 comment

  1. I wonder if the port wine growth on his face interfered with his vision and if so, why he did not elect to have it removed.

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