The May issue of the Notices of the AMS has memorial articles about two great mathematicians who passed away recently. The first is about Serge Lang and includes contributions from many people, including my Columbia colleague Dorian Goldfeld. When Lang died last September, I wrote a short posting here, but didn’t want to go into much detail. He was a remarkable man, with many facets, but also famously difficult. The Notices article does him justice and is well worth reading.

In the same issue, Loring Tu has the first part of a long article about Raoul Bott, who died last December. It’s a wonderful article concentrating on Bott’s mathematical career and describing in detail the setting of some of his most important work.

Today I also ran across the sad story of the death of John Brodie. Brodie was a theorist who got his Ph.D. from Princeton and worked on gauge theory and string theory. Evidently he suffered from bipolar disorder, which was a contributing factor in his death. I never met him, but had seen some of his papers. Perhaps some of the readers here knew him personally.

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14 Responses to Memorials

  1. Derek says:

    Whut? No mention of Carleson winning the Abel?

    AMS Notices is really going down the tubes recently – in content, timeliness, character and sadly even readership (just look at the idiocy spouted on the letters page for examples).

    Are there any better magazines in the same genre out there?

  2. woit says:


    The Notices is definitely the best thing of its kind I know about. They’re not especially timely (now there is news on the AMS web-site, including the Carleson news), but the articles are of high quality, and this takes time. I kind of agree about a lot of the letters….

  3. Jimbo says:

    I never knew nor met JOHN BRODIE, but I read Peter’s post about his death.
    I would urge everybody to clik on the Rutland Herald link to the story surrounding BRODIE’s life & death. It is a superbly written article about an extraordinary human being of the highest order, the stuff of which a movie could easily be made. Stephon Alexander, who knew BRODIE is quoted in the article.
    Someone needs to make sure a slightly compactified version of the Herald’s obit is sent to Physics Today.

  4. Lurker says:

    Peter et al, I don’t mean to spam, but what’s the difference between “Not Even Wrong : The Failure of String Theory & the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics” and “Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law“? I discovered this blog only recently, so I’m sorry if this is a FAQ.


  5. woit says:


    The first is the UK edition, supposed to be released about June 1 by Jonathan Cape. I’m surprised it is on the US Amazon site, since Cape just sell in the UK and British Commonwealth. The second is the US edition, put out by Basic Books, should be released sometime in September. The two books will be mostly the same, except the US edition will probably have a somewhat different preface (and different cover, and perhaps slightly different subtitle).

  6. Pindare says:

    Thanks for the links, really interesting.

    Off-topic: a paper by John Conway and Simon Kochen on their “free will theorem” is out today

  7. Tony Smith says:

    Jimbo said “… the Rutland Herald link to the story surrounding BRODIE’s life & death … is … the stuff of which a movie could easily be made …”.

    The Rutland Herald article said “… Brodie … took the supermarket job to escape the complexities of physics, he told friends, only to find his mind spinning with questions about bagging efficiency. ….”.

    The article reminds me of scenes in the movie “A Beautiful Mind” such as, for two examples:
    those in which John Nash visualizes math ideas and in which such things as flocks of pigeons inspire such ideas; and
    those in which John Nash fled from police-type people.

    The most recent four papers of Brodie that I saw on arXiv are:

    hep-th/0301138 (with Damien Easson of Syracuse as co-author), entitled “Brane inflation and reheating”, in which he “… construct[s] an inflationary brane world scenario from Type IIA string theory …” and goes on to say “… Using observational (COBE) data, we placed constraints on the parameters of the model … we can get more dark matter th[a]n visible matter. However, this dark matter will not be dark because it couples to the Standard Model gauge fields which we have taken to live on the D4-branes. To solve this problem we could put the Standard Model gauge fields on the D6’-branes, but this would modify our cosmological analysis. We leave the details of this model of dark matter for future work. …”.

    hep-th/0208191, entitled “Vortices under S-duality” dealing with QCD confinement;

    hep-th/0107178 (with O. Bergman and Y. Okawa), entitled “The Stringy Quantum Hall Fluid”, in which they say that the “… brane picture naturally explains various aspects of the quantum Hall fluid, such as the quantization of the filling fraction, and the charge and statistics of the quasiparticle and quasihole excitations …”; and

    hep-th/0101115, entitled “On Mediating Supersymmetry Breaking in D-Brane Models”, in which he “… present[s] a method for having first and second order phase transitions in brane constructions which might be relevant for modeling the Standard Model Higgs field …”.

    Note that these papers all deal with things (COBE inflation bounds, Dark Matter, QCD confinement, Quantum Hall effect, and the Standard Model Higgs field) that are subject to experimental / observational tests,
    it seems to me that John Brodie’s approach to physics was the type of approach that is needed to advance understanding of physics.

    Since it has been over 3 years since he put a paper on the arXiv, I wonder whether he left any unpublished notes. If he did, I hope that someone will write them up and put them on the arXiv for posterity.

    Tony Smith

    PS – The Rutland Herald article said “… people started talking … Why didn’t the homeowner who heard the doorbell let it go rather than calling police? Why didn’t the patrolman deal with the situation differently? …”.
    I hope that nobody is blaming the homeowner or the policeman.
    If I had a knock on my door at 11 PM and did not recognize the person, I would probably call the police, and, if I were a policeman answering such a call, I would probably also tell that person “… maybe it would be a good idea to go door to door at 11:00 in the morning instead of 23:00 at night …”.

  8. Chris W. says:


    Thanks for pointing to that paper. Not only is its content of deep interest, but its style is wonderfully engaging and lucid—head and shoulders above the typical arXiv posting. Given its authorship, I guess that shouldn’t be surprising.

  9. Tony Smith says:

    Pindare and Chris W. both commented here about the Conway and Kochen paper at quant-ph/0604079 in which Conway and Kochen say (at page 9):
    “… quantum mechanics and general relativity have been mutually inconsistent for most of their joint lifetime, an inconsistency that heterotic string theory resolved … by changing the dimension of space-time! …”.

    Most of the Conway and Kochen paper deals with their Free Will Theorem: If an experimenter has Free Will, then so must the particles in the rest of the universe outside the experimenter.

    My question is:
    Does the Free Will Theorem have anything to do with heterotic string theory’s extra (beyond 4) dimensions of space-time,
    such as some high-dimensional connection between expermimenter and the rest of the universe that correllates the experimenter’s Free Will with the Free will of the particles in the rest of the universe,
    was the reference to heterotic string theory a gratuitous irrelevant remark ?

    Since Conway and Kochen say that Bohm and GRW are OK if they allow particles outside the experimenter to also have Free Will, and since Free Will of such particles is something with which I am happy (it has long been an accepted part of many cultures, such as Taoism, etc), it seems to me that such forms of Bohm and GRW are all that you need, and that heterotic string theory is not necessary.

    Tony Smith

    PS – My descriptions of what Conway and Kochen say are based on the following excerpts from their paper:
    “… The Free Will Theorem …
    If the choice of directions in which to perform spin 1 experiments is not a function of the information accessible to the experimenters, then the responses of the particles are equally not functions of the information accessible to them.

    … According to Bohm, the evolution of a system is completely determined by certain real numbers (his “hidden variables”), whose initial values are not all known to us. … What we do know about these initial values may be roughly summed up by saying that they lie in a set … St at time t … as t increases, St steadily shrinks … because the particles have made free choices. …

    Bohm’s theory so exorcised … is consistent with our assertion that particles have free will. … The exorcised form of Bohm’s theory … prov[es] … the consistency of quantum mechanics … with … the Free Will property of particles. …

    our assertion that ‘the particles make a free decision’ is merely a shorthand form of the more precise statement that ‘the Universe makes this free decision in the neighborhood of the particles.’ …

    … Ghirardi, Rimini and Weber have proposed a theory [GRW] that attempts
    to explain the reduction of the state in quantum mechanics by an underlying
    mechanism of stochastic ‘hits.’ … in order to make the GRW theory relativistically invariant … the hits … need … some freedom (to be precise … they must be at least semi-free) …

    … fundamental particles are continually making their own decisions. No theory can predict exactly what these particles will do in the future for the very good reason that they may not yet have decided what this will be! Most of their decisions, of course, will not greatly affect things – we can describe them as mere ineffectual flutterings, which on a large scale almost cancel each other out, and so can be ignored. … The authors strongly believe, however, that

    there is a way our brains prevent some of this cancellation, so allowing us to integrate what remains and producing our own free will. …”.

  10. woit says:

    Tony et. al.,

    This is getting way, way, way off topic….

  11. Belizean says:

    Back on Topic:

    I never met Serge Lang, but he taught me calculus when I read his texts back in junior high.

    Thank you, Serge. RIP.

  12. Serge Lang and I coexisted at the Math Department at Yale for four years. One winter night I was hanging out at LOM (Leet Oliver Memorial Hall, a.k.a., the Land Of Math) with Carlos Tomei, whose postdoc office was adjacent to Lang’s office. We could hear the typewriter banging away next door. Bang-b-bang bang bang, with an occasional shloook (carriage return). All of a sudden the typewriter is silent, and we hear Lang speaking into the phone, in his outrageous French accent (think Steve Martin in the Pink Panther): “It is cold in here!” Crash (receiver hits cradle)!

    A beat.

    Then, clank, clank, clank, on goes the heat.

    This story is funnier to people who have lived in Yale housing and battled with the folks at physical plant.

  13. On the subject of memorials:

    Anyone interested in reading two letters George
    wrote to a young mathematician will find them linked to my low-tech website.

  14. woit says:

    Thanks Stephanie,

    I’ll add a link to the letters to the Mackey posting, and reopen the comment section there in case anyone wants to discuss.

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