一代数学大师 Rota 的经验与忠告

意大利裔的美籍数学家 Gian-Carlo Rota(1932 年 4 月 27 日 – 1999 年 4 月 18 日)是一位杰出的组合学家。他曾是研究泛函分析(Functional Analysis)出身,后来由于个人兴趣的转移,成为了一位研究组合数学(Combinatorial Mathematics)的学者。Rota 的职业生涯大部分都在麻省理工学院(MIT)度过,曾担任 MIT 的数学教授与哲学教授。

Rota's Photo 1970
1970 年的 Rota

从数学家族谱(Mathematics Genealogy Project)上面可以看到:Gian-Carlo Rota 的导师是 Jacob T. Schwartz,Rota 于 1956 年在耶鲁大学获得数学博士学位,其博士论文的题目是 Extension Theory of Differential Operators。

Rota的数学家族谱_1
Rota 的数学族谱

在 1997 年,Rota 发表了两篇关于人生经验和忠告的文章,分别是 “Ten Lessons I wish I Had Been Taught” 和 “Ten Lessons for the Survival of a Mathematics Department“。下面就来逐一分享这两篇文章中的一些观点。

Ten Lessons I wish I Had Been Taught

Springer Link Ten Lessons I wish I Had Been Taught
Ten Lessons I wish I Had Been Taught

讲座(Lecturing)

每次讲座或者分享的时候都有几个需要注意的事情。

(a)每次讲座都应该只有一个重点。(Every lecture should make only one main point.)

Every lecture should state one main point and repeat it over and over, like a theme with variations. An audience is like a herd of cows, moving slowly in the direction they are being driven towards. If we make one point, we have a good chance that the audience will take the right direction; if we make several points, then the cows will scatter all over the field. The audience will lose interest and everyone will go back to the thoughts they interrupted in order to come to our lecture.

(b)不要超时。(Never run overtime.)

Running overtime is the one unforgivable error a lecturer can make. After fifty minutes (one micro-century as von Neumann used to say) everybody’s attention will turn elsewhere even if we are trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis. One minute overtime can destroy the best of lectures.

(c)提及听众的成果。(Relate to your audience.)

As you enter the lecture hall, try to spot someone in the audience with whose work you have some familiarity. Quickly rearrange your presentation so as to manage to mention some of that person’s work. In this way, you will guarantee that at least one person will follow with rapt attention, and you will make a friend to boot.

Everyone in the audience has come to listen to your lecture with the secret hope of hearing their work mentioned.

(d)给听众一些值得回忆的东西。(Give them something to take home.)

Most of the time they admit that they have forgotten the subject of the course and all the mathematics I thought I had taught them. However, they will gladly recall some joke, some anecdote, some quirk, some side remark, or some mistake I made.

板书技巧(Blackboard Technique)

(a)开讲前保持黑板干净(Make sure the blackboard is spotless.)

By starting with a spotless blackboard you will subtly convey the impression that the lecture they are about to hear is equally spotless.

(b)从黑板的左上角开始书写(Start writing on the top left-hand corner.

What we write on the blackboard should correspond to what we want an attentive listener to take down in his notebook. It is preferable to write slowly and in a large handwriting, with no abbreviations.

When slides are used instead of the blackboard, the speaker should spend some time explaining each slide, preferably by adding sentences that are inessential, repetitive, or superfluous, so as to allow any member of the audience time to copy our slide. We all fall prey to the illusion that a listener will find the time to read the copy of the slides we hand them after the lecture. This is wishful thinking.

多次公布同样的结果(Publish the Same Result Several Times)

The mathematical community is split into small groups, each one with its own customs, notation, and terminology. It may soon be indispensable to present the same result in several versions, each one accessible to a specific group; the price one might have to pay otherwise is to have our work rediscovered by someone who uses a different language and notation and who will rightly claim it as his own.

说明性的工作反而更有可能被记得(You Are More Likely to Be Remembered by Your Expository Work)

When we think of Hilbert, we think of a few of his great theorems, like his basis theorem. But Hilbert’s name is more often remembered for his work in number theory, his Zahlbericht, his book Foundations of Geometry, and for his text on integral equations.

每个数学家只有少数的招数(Every Mathematician Has Only a Few Tricks)

You admire Erdös’s contributions to mathematics as much as I do, and I felt annoyed when the older mathematician flatly and definitively stated that all of Erdös’s work could be “reduced” to a few tricks which Erdös repeatedly relied on in his proofs. What the number theorist did not realize is that other mathematicians, even the very best, also rely on a few tricks which they use over and over. But on reading the proofs of Hilbert’s striking and deep theorems in invariant theory, it was surprising to verify that Hilbert’s proofs relied on the same few tricks. Even Hilbert had only a few tricks!

别害怕犯错(Do Not Worry about Your Mistakes)

There are two kinds of mistakes. There are fatal mistakes that destroy a theory, but there are also contingent ones, which are useful in testing the stability of a theory.

使用费曼的方法(Use the Feynman Method)

You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

不要吝啬你的赞美(Give Lavish Acknowledgments)

I have always felt miffed after reading a paper in which I felt I was not being given proper credit, and it is safe to conjecture that the same happens to everyone else.

写好摘要(Write Informative Introductions)

If we wish our paper to be read, we had better provide our prospective readers with strong motivation to do so. A lengthy introduction, summarizing the history of the subject, giving everybody his due, and perhaps enticingly outlining the content of the paper in a discursive manner, will go some of the way towards getting us a couple of readers.

为老年做好心理准备(Be Prepared for Old Age)

You must realize that after reaching a certain age you are no longer viewed as a person. You become an institution, and you are treated the way institutions are treated. You are expected to behave like a piece of period furniture, an architectural landmark, or an incunabulum.

 

Ten Lessons for the Survival of a Mathematics Department

Springer Link Ten Lessons for the Survival of a Mathematics Department
Ten Lessons for the Survival of a Mathematics Department

不要在其他系讲自己系同事的坏话(Never wash your dirty linen in public)

Departments of a university are like sovereign states: there is no such thing as charity towards one another.

别越级打报告(Never go above the head of your department)

Your letter will be viewed as evidence of disunity in the rank and file of mathematicians. Human nature being what it is, such a dean or provost is likely to remember an unsolicited letter at budget time, and not very kindly at that.

不要进行领域评价(Never Compare Fields)

You are not alone in believing that your own field is better and more promising than those of your colleagues. We all believe the same about our own fields. But our beliefs cancel each other out. Better keep your mouth shut rather than make yourself obnoxious. And remember, when talking to outsiders, have nothing but praise for your colleagues in all fields, even for those in combinatorics. All public shows of disunity are ultimately harmful to the well-being of mathematics.

别看不起别人使用的数学(Remember that the grocery bill is a piece of mathematics too)

The grocery bill, a computer program, and class field theory are three instances of mathematics. Your opinion that some instances may be better than others is most effectively verbalized when you are asked to vote on a tenure decision. At other times, a careless statement of relative values is more likely to turn potential friends of mathematics into enemies of our field. Believe me, we are going to need all the friends we can get.

善待擅长教学的老师(Do not look down on good teachers)

Mathematics is the greatest undertaking of mankind. All mathematicians know this. Yet many people do not share this view. Consequently, mathematics is not as self-supporting a profession in our society as the exercise of poetry was in medieval Ireland. Most of our income will have to come from teaching, and the more students we teach, the more of our friends we can appoint to our department. Those few colleagues who are successful at teaching undergraduate courses should earn our thanks as well as our respect. It is counterproductive to turn up our noses at those who bring home the dough.

学会推销自己的数学成果(Write expository papers)

When I was in graduate school, one of my teachers told me, “When you write a research paper, you are afraid that your result might already be known; but when you write an expository paper, you discover that nothing is known.”

It is not enough for you (or anyone) to have a good product to sell; you must package it right and advertise it properly. Otherwise you will go out of business.

When an engineer knocks at your door with a mathematical question, you should not try to get rid of him or her as quickly as possible.

不要把提问者拒之门外(Do not show your questioners to the door)

What the engineer wants is to be treated with respect and consideration, like the human being he is, and most of all to be listened to with rapt attention. If you do this, he will be likely to hit upon a clever new idea as he explains the problem to you, and you will get some of the credit.

Listening to engineers and other scientists is our duty. You may even learn some interesting new mathematics while doing so.

联合阵线(View the mathematical community as a United Front)

Grade school teachers, high school teachers, administrators and lobbyists are as much mathematicians as you or Hilbert. It is not up to us to make invidious distinctions. They contribute to the well-being of mathematics as much as or more than you or other mathematicians. They are right in feeling left out by snobbish research mathematicians who do not know on which side their bread is buttered. It is our best interest, as well as the interest of justice, to treat all who deal with mathematics in whatever way as equals. By being united we will increase the probability of our survival.

把科学从不可靠中拯救出来(Attack Flakiness)

Flakiness is nowadays creeping into the sciences like a virus through a computer, and it may be the present threat to our civilization. Mathematics can save the world from the invasion of the flakes by unmasking them and by contributing some hard thinking. You and I know that mathematics is not and will never be flaky, by definition.

This is the biggest chance we have had in a long while to make a lasting contribution to the well-being of Science. Let us not botch it as we did with the few other chances we have had in the past.

善待所有人(Learn when to withdraw)

Let me confess to you something I have told very few others (after all, this message will not get around much): I have written some of the papers I like the most while hiding in a closet. When the going gets rough, we have recourse to a way of salvation that is not available to ordinary mortals: we have that Mighty Fortress that is our Mathematics. This is what makes us mathematicians into very special people. The danger is envy from the rest of the world.

When you meet someone who does not know how to differentiate and integrate, be kind, gentle, understanding. Remember, there are lots of people like that out there, and if we are not careful, they will do away with us, as has happened many times before in history to other Very Special People.

参考资料:

  1. Rota, Gian-Carlo. “Ten lessons I wish I had been taught.” Indiscrete thoughts. Birkhäuser, Boston, MA, 1997. 195-203.
  2. Rota, Gian-Carlo. “Ten Lessons for the Survival of a Mathematics Department.” Indiscrete Thoughts. Birkhäuser, Boston, MA, 1997. 204-208.

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