As the Story Goes: Recollections of a Mathematician

Science is a serious enterprise, but also a very human one with all the drama of human ingenuity mixed with human quirks and foibles that makes fascinating reading. However, these “back stories” are rarely known to the public due to the very nature (some would say, exclusiveness) of the scientific enterprise. Here’s one published recollection – an interview with the distinguished MIT mathematician, Bertram Kostant who was a visiting member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton between 1953 and 1955, the years when intellectual giants like Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hermann Weyl were there. The following account consist of excerpts from that interview, reproduced with some minor edits (in italics).

Recollections of Bertram Kostant
from Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians (2009), edited by Joel Segal.

Bertram Kostant (1928-2017) was an American mathematician known for his work in representation theory, differential geometry and mathematical physics.

“I received my doctorate in ’54, but I was admitted as a visiting member of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in ’53. I was there until ’55. Some of the world’s foremost scientists were at the IAS at that time: Einstein, John von Neumann, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hermann Weyl. I remember them all. I was very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, … to have the opportunity to meet not only Einstein but von Neumann and Hermann Weyl, since all three were dead within a few years.

I met Einstein on Good Friday in 1955, about a week or so before he died. He was pacing around Fuld Hall looking for Jack, the driver of the Institute. But Jack was off that day, apparently because of the Good Friday holiday. Einstein often walked home with (Kurt) Godel, but I think Godel was not around. I was the only one sitting in the Full Hall common room, and I said, “I’ll be happy to drive you. It will be an honor.”

“Ohhh,” [Waving off the compliment.] So, I drove him to 112 Mercer Street. I was very nervous. God forbid I should have an accident! Einstein was a hero. Even my sister, who didn’t care about science one bit, regarded Einstein as a near deity. Once, when I invited my sister to the IAS, I took them into Einstein’s office. Office doors were generally unlocked when I was there. My older sister, who was nine years older than I, went out of her mind. “Einstein! This is Einstein’s office!” she was running around in a delirious state looking for souvenirs. The younger of my sisters was very proper and was screaming at my older sister for behaving this way. We were both running after her, taking things she wanted out of her hand. It was like a scene from Charlie Chaplin.

Einstein was extremely friendly. He didn’t want to get out of the car. We had a very pleasant talk. At one point, he asked me what I was working on. I said Lie groups. He said, “Oh that will be very important.” I was so pleased with that comment and rather surprised that he knew who Lie was.  And we talked about Oppenheimer. I sensed he didn’t like Oppenheimer. Besides personality conflict, it was known that Oppenheimer didn’t take Einstein seriously any more because of Einstein’s opposition to the strange properties of quantum mechanics.

I was fortunate to get to know John von Neumann (the legendary scientific polymath).as well. I went into his office one day and I told him a theorem I had proved, now known as the linear Konstant convexity theorem … he was quickly able to see a proof though it was quite new to him. I was pleasantly surprised that he gave me, I think, an hour of his time … I was also pleased that he turned out to be warm and friendly.

I thought all mathematicians were a bit weird and would stay up to all hours of the night and work. I was kind of shocked when I went to the Institute to find out that they lived 9-to-5 lives. One night I was the only one at 3 o’clock in the morning in the library in Fuld Hall, and it was very dark. I couldn’t even see my way; I remember walking down the hall and coming near von Neumann’s office, there’s this guy with a gun, right in front of von Neumann’s office. I almost got a heart attack! It was an FBI agent. He was guarding von Neumann’s office because von Neumann had all these secrets in his office.” Fun fact: von Neumann was a key figure in the development of the atomic bomb, and a member of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Fuld Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study once played host to such luminaries as Einstein, Weyl, Oppenheimer, von Neumann.
Albert Einstein (left) needs no introduction. John von Neumann (1903-1957), a Hungarian-American mathematical genius is regarded as having perhaps the widest expertise of any mathematician of his time. He made seminal contributions not only in mathematics but also in theoretical physics and computer science.
Einstein with the famed logician, Kurt Godel at the IAS.

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