Friday, August 17, 2007

Being An Active Scientist at Age Eighty

Last Wednesday morning I took an hour to go and listen to a talk by Sigurdur Helgason at the University of Iceland. Sigurdur Helgason is one of Iceland's foremost scientists and a mathematician of great distinction, or so I am told. Suffice it to say that the American Mathematical Society have agreed to publish his collected works by some time next year---a honour that is bestowed only to true giants in mathematics.

I had the pleasure to meet Sigurdur Helgason in June 2004, when Anna and I visited Boston and MIT for Kári Ragnarsson's PhD graduation. He struck me as a very lively, curious and laid-back guy, who still enjoyed life, teaching his courses and thinking about maths despite being well over 70.

Sigurdur Helgason's talk kicked off a conference in honour of his 80th birthday. I had no chance of appreciating the technical content of the talk, but it was remarkable to see a 80-year-old man deliver such a well-planned presentation, reporting on some results he seemed to have achieved over the last four years or so. That was a truly awesome thing to witness.

What I found unbecoming was that there were no questions from the audience after the talk. Maybe the tradition in his area of maths is different from the one in TCS, but I would have expected at least the session chair to ask a token question to that great man.

Fortunately, being 80 and famous, he did not seem to be bothered!


Anonymous said...

thanks for the pointer, luca. of course, another such great inspiration is Israel Gelfand, who is in his nineties and active! as an example physically closer to me, i would also point to my colleague Jack Minker, who recently turned 80 and still comes in to work and plays tennis!


Luca Aceto said...


Indeed, I should have mentioned Israel Gelfand in the post. He is just an amazing example of longevity.

I love this quote from his banquet address at the conference for his 90th birthday (transcript here):

The next question was: How can I work at my age? The answer is very simple. I am not a great mathematician. I speak seriously. I am just a student all my life. From the very beginning of my life I was trying to learn. And for example now, when listening to the talks and reading notes of this conference, I discover how much I still do not know and have to learn. Therefore, I am always learning. In this sense I am a student. Never a "Fuehrer".

Thanks for the pointer to Jack Minker!