Sunday, March 30, 2008

Irving 'Kap' Kaplansky - He Strikes A Familiar Chord! The Mystery is Solved...

We had three winners this week who correctly identified Professor Kaplansky (1917-2006). As usual, I had many reasons for selecting this outstanding mathematician. I'm always partial to algebraists or number theorists and 'Kap' worked in both areas. I've also been told I bear some physical resemblance to Dr. Kaplansky! I was also influenced by the fact that music played an important role in his life.
A press release from the U. of Chicago provided the following excerpt:

Kaplansky loved working with young people, and he served as Ph.D. advisor to 55 graduate students, the most of any mathematics professor ever to have taught at the University of Chicago, said J. Peter May, Professor of Mathematics at the University.

He published close to 150 papers, the earliest appearing in 1939 and the last in 2003, an astonishing span of activity for a mathematician,” May said. “Kaplansky had a great sense of humor, or perhaps more accurately fun. He enjoyed life and lit up any room he was in. He liked quirky mathematical problems with a real life twist. For example, a 1943 paper gave an elegant solution of the problem of finding the number of ways that a given number of married couples may be seated at a round table, men alternating with women, so that no wife sits next to her own husband."

In 1984 he became Director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, California, a post he held until 1992.

David Eisenbud, current Director of MSRI and a former student said, “I remember well his highly entertaining and beautifully polished lectures from my student days in Chicago. Whatever he taught, I signed up for the course, it was such a pleasure to listen to him.

“After stepping down as MSRI director, at 80, Kaplansky went back to full-time research mathematics, and returned to number theory, one of his first loves,” Eisenbud said.

As an avid musician and pianist, Kaplansky played in or directed many University musical and theater productions, including its annual productions of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Music was a very important part of Prof. Kaplansky's life. Here is an excerpt from Ivar's Peterson's Math Trek:

A distinguished mathematician who has made major contributions to algebra and other fields, Kaplansky was born in Toronto, Ontario, several years after his parents had emigrated from Poland. In the beginning, his parents thought that he was going to become a concert pianist. By the time he was 5 years old, he was taking piano lessons. That lasted for about 11 years, until he finally realized that he was never going to be a pianist of distinction.

Nonetheless, Kaplansky loved playing the piano, and music has remained one of his hobbies. "I sometimes say that God intended me to be the perfect accompanist--the perfect rehearsal pianist might be a better way of saying it," he says. "I play loud, I play in time, but I don't play very well."

While in high school, Kaplansky started to play in dance bands. During his graduate studies at Harvard, he was a member of a small combo that performed in local night clubs. For a while, he hosted a regular radio program, where he played imitations of popular artists of the day and commented on their music. A little later, when Kaplansky became a math instructor at Harvard, one of his students was Tom Lehrer, later to become famous for his witty ditties about science and math.
He wrote A Song About Pi. Additional lyrics were added by one of his inspired students. If you ever get a chance to hear a performance by singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky (Irving Kaplansky's daughter), you might very well get a rendition of "The Song About Pi" as part of the program. A club headliner, recording artist, and former psychologist, Lucy Kaplansky has her own distinctive style but doesn't mind occasionally showcasing her father's old-fashioned tunemanship.

Now for our winners:

Eric Jablow

Irving Kaplansky...

Barton Yeary

Howdy -- the mystery mathematician is Irving Kaplansky. The reference to rings made me immediately think of him and a bit of googling located his obit from AMS Notices ( The pictures matched up.

I don't have an anecdote about him. But one fact is this: he wrote a nice book for undergraduates, Set Theory and Metric Spaces.


Irving Kaplanski.
i met him in '87 at herstein's festschrift:
his daughter's semi-famous:
keep 'em coming!
I'll leave Prof. Kaplansky's picture up there for another week or so. Stay tuned for the next contest...

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