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Biographies: Reminiscences of a True Believer Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129797D
Original Publication Date: 1994-Apr-30
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07
Document File: 10 page(s) / 42K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

Harvey Cohn: AUTHOR [+2]


Mathematics Department City College (CUNY) New York, NY 10031 E-mail:hihc@cunyvm.bitnet[edu]

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Copyright ©; 1994 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Biographies: Reminiscences of a True Believer

Harvey Cohn

Mathematics Department City College (CUNY) New York, NY 10031 E- mail:hihc@cunyvm.bitnet[edu]

A cynical view of civilization attributed to Clemenceau is that it is the "brief interval between barbarism and decadence." The purpose of this view was to give American civilization the obligatory Gallic shoulder shrug. Coincidentally, the largely American computing culture has impressed me as having had such a history.

Before the stored-program computer was the age of barbarism. The days of automatic programming and language translation were the age of civilization. The present days of operating systems, windows, and so on, have to be the age of decadence. Somewhere in between these extremes there was civilization: for me those were the years 1953 to 195S.

Early education.

My credentials as a true believer are negative, for they stem from my overreactions to the preWord War II mathematical scholasticism. In my Townsend Harris high school years in New York, 1936 to 1939, I found myself honored as a mathematics prodigy but troubled by the idea that the honor might be of dubious value in earning a living. At the College of the City of New York, from 1939 to 1942, my feelings were accentuated. The gospel of the purity of mathematics was echoed dogmatically but yet defensively by teachers whom I otherwise admired greatly. Their attitude seemed encapsulated in the famous Mathematician's Apology" of G.H. Hardy, which they recommended to me to read. This book appalled me as the ultimate in snobbery for its theme that "if real mathematicians do no good they also do no harm." Indeed Hardy used real provocatively to mean "pure", as compared with "trivial" which meant applied."

At City College, it was necessary to go to the Electrical Engineering Department to find a course in matrices or in applications of complex analysis, and to the Physics Department to learn of the applications of differential equations. This was not unusual: it was their purity, their avoidance of real applications, that gave Mathematics Departments their sense of class.

I never accepted the folklore of the mainstream purists, who viewed nonappreciation of their calling as a form of ennoblement, as though it were some idealistic political cause. Neither did I believe the mathematical crowd-pleasers who said that everything abstract shall eventually be applied. I ended up as an applied mathematician in spirit, specializing in number theory, which looked very applied since the interest created by a theorem concerning numbers at that time lay in its numerical examples.

The advent of computing still took time. First I had an exciting two year adventure, from 1942 to 1944, with Richard Courant, which included an MS in applied mathematics...