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Professor: Gary Gordon
Chair: Marshall R. Metzgar Professor
Department: Mathematics (department head)
Years at Lafayette: 31
Song: The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” from Rubber Soul (1965)
Favorite Beatles albums: Abbey Road and Revolver

Connection to Song
The song I selected is more of a connection to the artist, although this is the only Beatles song that I know of with a reference to a chair.

Connection to Literal Chairs
For most of my career there wasn’t a chair. Over my 30 years, I’ve only had three chairs. The one I am sitting in is a colleague’s who is on sabbatical, so I have only used it for a few months. The main chair I’ve used for the last 20 years, which is in the corner, was from another colleague who ordered it because he had back trouble. He was only here a year. When he said he was leaving, I went to his office and told him I was sorry to hear he was leaving and asked to see his chair. It has seen its prime. The cartridge in it was replaced twice. I have ordered new chairs for colleagues, but I’m more of the chair whisperer, luring chairs to my office.

Connection to Family
The Beatles have been a central theme in my marriage. My wife is a huge Beatles fan. I don’t know if it was a requirement for the person whom she married to also be a Beatles fan, but I think it was a plus. I was raised in a home where both of my parents were musical. Both had classical music training but were eclectic in the music they liked. My mother especially loved some of the rock music out at the time, including the Beatles. So it didn’t matter if it happened in a concert hall or a rock show, music was important in my upbringing, and something my wife and I passed on to our daughters. My eldest daughter just married a guy from Liverpool, so last summer we got to travel to Liverpool where we saw Beatles museums and memorabilia. It was a blast. My favorite Beatle is Paul while my wife’s is George. My eldest daughter likes John while my youngest also favors George.

Connection to Endowed Chair
We all have complicated relationships with things that we want and how things change once we get them. I’ve had this happen a couple times in my career. There were journals that I was absolutely convinced I wanted to publish a paper in, and that if I could publish a paper in that specific journal, it would be a very nice point in my career. Then I published a paper in that journal, and nothing changed. I wanted something, but getting it was a different story. The endowed chair is similar. For a long time this department had one endowed chair to a very deserving person, Lorenzo Traldi. But we thought our department was strong enough and deserved more recognition. An endowed chair is an important way to recognize how important the department is and how good the teachers are. But then there becomes this natural separation between a chair and the person standing next to him or her who is every bit as good at the job, as good a teacher, researcher, and colleague. So there’s a sense of guilt that comes with that designation. I like the ambivalence in this song of a love affair that didn’t lead anywhere. There’s a sense of looking forward to something and being excited about it, and then it happens, but you don’t know what to do next. As department head, I get to see how the faculty are evaluated by the students, what they do in terms of their publishing, and what they do in service to the school and the profession, and it’s staggering. There are so many people in this department who are terrific at their jobs, and I think more of us deserve recognition.

Connection to Math Faculty
There is a tendency in mathematics of people not wanting to draw attention to themselves. It’s uncomfortable. We are happiest as a group of anti-social people who have difficulty talking to human beings about things that are not equations, numbers, and shapes. Being an endowed chair is more of a social thing that says, “Look at me, isn’t this great?” It is out of character. There’s a joke: How do you tell what an extroverted mathematician looks like? He stares at your shoes while you talk to him.

Connection to the Work
Being an endowed chair is a nice thing. You publish a paper in a journal; the paper is out there. This lasts longer. It comes with perks—a certain budget that allows me to travel to certain conferences, buy books, and buy technology. Over my three years as an endowed chair, I have purchased some technology to help with meetings and work at home. There are several projects, all of which are in different states. As department head, I have many time demands that can make it hard to get back to those projects.

I am the editor of the Problems section of the journal Math Horizons, which comes out four times a year. I write a column that includes original problems, and readers then send in solutions that get published. Most solutions are submitted electronically, but one person sent his in by paper mail, and the return address said “Federal State Prison.” The prisoner in Washington State had access to the journal and was strong enough mathematically that he sent in solutions. So I struck up a friendship with him by email. Last year on Pi Day, March 14th, he convinced the prison to host a Pi Day celebration. He invited me and two other mathematicians from Italy with whom he corresponded. I went to the prison, gave a short presentation, and had a wonderful day with people who were very enthusiastic about mathematics. Math changed this prisoner’s life. It gave him focus, something to study, work on, and develop his mind. He really turned his life around. I’m working on a short article about him for this journal. There are some research projects in various states. I came across a paper that just came out that is closely related to a result that my wife and I published many years ago. I plan to look at what they have done and may be able to redo their proof in a much faster way. That’s one of the things you try to do. You try to read, see what applies to something you have already done, and make some progress on a problem.

A big project we just completed about a year ago has four co-authors: me, my wife, and my two daughters. The book is about the card game Set, which is loved by mathematicians because the underpinning is very mathematical. My wife got interested in the game 10 years ago when a student came to her about an honors project. The two of us have done a lot with the game in classes, and we’d even published a paper on it, connecting it to an area of math called coding theory. At one point my wife thought there was enough for a book. We wrote a prospectus and a sample chapter. Both of our daughters are mathematically strong, and the youngest was a champion in this game. We asked them if they wanted to co-author the book. The book came out last fall. On a good day, I sit around and play Set with my family and listen to the Beatles. I’m the worst in the family at the game. It’s a speed game, and it just takes me forever to see the patterns. My wife and my daughters are exceptionally talented at visualization and pattern recognition. It’s how they see the world. I do so too but not at the same level. I am better at playing disc jockey. We’d go through Abbey Road. That’s something my daughters would really like too.

Categorized in: Mathematics

1 Comment

  1. David Olesen says:

    That was a fun read. That’s an interesting discussion of The Beatles and chair theory. I understand that – I guarded my prize chair (from a departing colleague) for decades.

    I don’t think I would have the courage to visit a federal prison. Well done!

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