The world should have known him better
Mathematician who came here from Poland before WW II had spirit,
By Ralph A. Raimi
On Oct. 26, a mathematician named Mark Kac (pronounced kotz)
died in California. He had been over most of his career a
professor at Cornell University, but his ties with Rochester were
substantial. For one thing, Ithaca is not far away; Kac came here
almost every year to give a talk to our mathematics department ---
a "Colloquium talk" as it is called.
Mathematicians, like other scholars, visit each other's
institutions quite often to deliver professional lectures on their
latest researches, generally to an audience of a handful, since the
more abstruse recent results of science or mathematics are
generally incomprehensible to all but a few. Kac was a master
lecturer, however, and drew audiences even from among the
uncomprehending, so great was the charm of his address.
Kac also was a close friend and collaborator of John F.
Randolph, who was chairman of the U of R math department during the
1950s. They were co-authors of a widely used calculus book, back
in their youth when Randolph worked at Cornell. Prof. Randolph,
now many years retired from the U of R, still teaches at RIT.
PART OF THE CHARM of Mark Kac was in his style of speech,
which could be called Central European English at its best. He was
one of many scientists who came to America in the 1930s, a step
ahead of the gas ovens of Auschwitz; Kac was a Polish Jew. Others
of his generation are still living; they came from Hungary,
Romania, Lithuania, Austria and Poland as well as from Germany, and
those from the smaller countries with unknown languages, like
Hungarian and Polish, often developed formidable linguistic powers
in the course of their travels.
They could speak a broken version of five or six languages,
most of them, and it was often said in my college days that the
language of scientific instruction was---at the University of
Michigan, anyway---Broken English. There was a joke about the
grammar and lexicon of this curious language that every student had
to learn: "You must know that in Broken English is call Broken
Kac was better than that. He spoke his five or six languages
beautifully. He never lost his Polish accent---he rolled his Rs
mercilessly---but more important, he never lost that brio, that
sparkling juxtaposition of surprising phrases and constructions
that made his speech such a delight to anyone with an ounce of
poetry in his soul. How much of this was due to his Polish and how
much to his own curious outlook on the world one cannot say.
The mathematical view of the world itself can generate this
love of paradox, as can be seen in the works of Lewis Carroll and
Augustus DeMorgan, two well-known mathematicians of the last
century. In some ways Mark Kac carried on that tradition, although
generally within mathematics rather than in fantasies or
THE MATHEMATICAL work of Mark Kac is of course indescribable
to the general public. Much of it had to do with the theory of
probability, one of the most important (and most practical,
scientifically) of the 20th century developments in mathematics.
His personality showed itself in the often surprising, unexpected
connections he found between statements concerning probability and
statements that had at first sight no connection with probability.
His work was not only profound and elegant (words mathematicians
like to use in praise), but it was brilliant---just a bit shocking-
--like the rest of his speech and attitude.
The last time he visited Rochester for a Colloquium talk was
more than five years ago. From that occasion I can remember one
thing he said that illustrates his character, his wit, the health
and high spirit he always showed, and sometimes loaned, as it were,
to the rest of us.
It happened that a couple of weeks earlier we had been visited
for a Colloquium talk by another mathematician (also a bit of a
wag), and I had been riding the elevator in the Ray Hylan building
of the U of R with that man. We were going to the 11th floor and
by inattention I pushed the button for the 10th floor (where my
office is). Of course I pushed #11 too, but I had to apologize to
my guest, saying that the elevator would now stop at the tenth
floor first, unnecessarily, now that I had pushed that button,
since on this particular elevator there was no way to reverse the
The man said to me: "I see. This elevator has a good memory,
but no judgment."
I thought this was pretty funny, a typical mathematician's
remark, and so, three weeks later, as I rode up the same elevator
with Mark Kac, I told him this story. Kac smiled, thought a
moment, then said "Actually, you know, I'm not sure I would want to
ride in an elevator with judgment."
SUCH A REMARK does not resemble the common picture of the
soulless scientist, the Dr. Strangelove willing to blow up the
world in pursuit of technological excellence. Nor does it resemble
the image of the solemn expert testifying before a Congressional
committee, delivering crisp statements, safe, carefully hedged,
and drained of philosophy.
I wish there were a way to offer the general public a better
picture of the real life of science. If only the world at large
could have known Mark Kac as well as it knew (say) Clark Gable or
J. Edgar Hoover, this would have been a better place to live.
Ralph A. Raimi is professor of mathematics and chairman of the
Department of Sociology at the University of Rochester.
[Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, 11 November 1984.]