Two Birds of Different Feathers

I was saddened yesterday to learn of the death of John Stallings exactly one year before. John was a mercurial Berkeley mathematician of occasional genius who, if you believed him, mostly enjoyed sleeping, doing nothing, and various scurrilous activities. Including, on the level of barely scurrilous, BSing with graduate students such as myself and my pals about how everything was so pointless you might as well occasionally do a bit of math. Except – and here is the difference – the bits he did occasionally set the world on fire.

The Berkeley Math Department still has his home page up. Please take a look and read especially (if you like math) his note on How not to prove the Poincare conjecture, and his famous reply to a research institute performing a survey on how professors spend their time. For a more sober non-self-assessment, the University obituary hints at just how really good he was.

Today I translated into English an interview given to our local newspaper, the Neue Westfalische (NW for short) by the departing Rector of the University of Bielefeld, Prof. Dr. Dieter Timmermann. The Rector is the academic head of the university. In his office as Rector, Professor Timmermann was a very snappy dresser with a perfect haircut and perfect suit and tie, as befits a man of importance in German society. He presided over a huge transformation of study at the University of Bielefeld, from the traditional german Diplom structure, described briefly in my old note, to a Bachelor’s-Master’s-based structure that is supposed to emulate the “Anglo-Saxon” model of university study. But he seems to think it went wrong. It is not surprising that not everything is perfect – very few German professors (for example, none besides me in my faculty) have any experience of teaching in, say, the U.S., the U.K., or Australia, whence this new model for Germany supposedly came. Imagine if, say, the University of Salford were to move to a traditional German model: take six years to do anything you like, find yourself, take a couple of short oral exams in the middle and a few more at the end, then write a 60pp research thesis in six months or more. Would everything go right? First, one has to know what “right” means! If you change your model so completely, it is no longer so clear. And we might wonder if this is the case now in Bielefeld for many of my colleagues.

I think the views expressed by Prof. Dr. Timmermann will astonish readers in U.K. or U.S. Universities, as they astonished me. Here I just want to point out how surprisingly consonant they are with those of John Stallings (as regards university work, I hasten to add!). More different social creatures in the professorial calling would be hard to imagine!

Where could such a similarity originate? It could originate in general ideas about what a university is for. Germany’s is often said to arise from Alexander von Humboldt’s ideas from 200 years ago, which, in a bowdlerised version that nevertheless reflects a popular conception in German university education, gives lonely original thinkers a place to expound their ideas, surrounded by those willing to learn from them. (This idea is consonant with the medieval idea of a university, except “lonely original thinkers” there were mostly called heretics!) If I had been an algebraic topologist, I could have learned a lot from John, as my pals did. And, people (such as my son’s former teacher) tell me that, if I were a school-level educationalist, I could learn a lot from Prof. Dr. Timmermann.

Another, less complimentary, idea might be termed “the arrogance of the clever”. If you are a mathematician of genius, it doesn’t matter what you do at university, someone will still give you a prestigious job to do what you’re good at, even if you only do it a couple hours a day (but you still have to teach calculus, at least at a U.S. university :-) ). Similarly, if you are a good economist, you can play soccer your first year or two in university and still write your Ph.D. later. My reason for calling it “arrogance” comes from the observation attributed to Thomas Alva Edison that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, meaning that even if you’re clever, you don’t get anything except by working hard at it. Indeed, thinking of John’s example one could almost say that genius is 1% inspiration, 60% perspiration and 39% dissimulation, namely hiding the fact you’re breaking a sweat over it at all.

Whatever. In today’s anxious world it is hard to imagine a character like John springing up unformed from under a Little Rock and stubbornly remaining so while pursuing a sometimes spectacularly brilliant career. I feel privileged to have known him and sad that he is gone.

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