Monday, September 17, 2007

Adventures of a Mathematician, by S.M. Ulam

I read this book decades ago and it made a deep impression on me. I have often told stories from the book. Now I am rereading the book and I find that one of my favorite stories is not in that book.


The boy had to tell something to the class about current events. The Chicago Cubs had brought up a new pitcher. The rookie had been called to pitch and had gotten hit pretty hard. The boy figured up his ERA. It was something like 87.

When the boy gave his report to the class, the teacher crushed him when she told him that that was wrong, that a pitcher's ERA could not be more than 27. (Obviously, she was mixed up as this is the minimum number of batters for a 9 inning game.)

At the end of the baseball year, the Chicago newspaper printed the complete statistics for the Chicago Cubs. As it turned out, and not surprisingly, that game was the only game that pitcher ever pitched for the Cubs. His ERA given in the paper was the same as the boy had computed.

This was irrefutable evidence that he was right. Furthermore, he was right and the teacher was wrong. He was so impressed that mathematics gave real answers, that there is a truth there, regardless of the belief of teachers or anyone else.

So he determined that he would be a mathematician.

A great story. I have enjoyed it and enjoyed telling it. But S. M. Ulam is not its author. Now I will have to search to find the real author. Ulam was a professor at the University of Wisconsin. I had always told the story as happening at the University of Chicago. Maybe that is a clue to the real author.

Another favorite story of mine that I had attributed to Ulam is in the book.

It was during the war and the best, most brilliant mathematics students and professors started disappearing. Going to work for the war effort was the excuse given but he still puzzled over it. One was a great-granddaughter of Georg Boole of Boolean algebra fame. Then von Neuman interviewed him and offered him a job which he accepted. (Von Neuman had two big, burly guards with him at all times.)

When Ulam was told that he would be going to New Mexico, he went to the library and checked out a guidebook to the state. On the charge slip in the back were the names of those people who had disappeared. When he got to Los Alamos, sure enough, there were those mathematics students and professors.

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