Well, let's put anything in here, anecdotes, stories etc about any mathematician, well known, and some maybe not well known at all.
Von Neumann and Nobert Weiner
Von Neumann and Nobert Weiner were both the subject of many dotty professor stories. Von Neumann supposedly had the habit of simply writing answers to homework assignments on the board (the method of solution being, of course, obvious) when he was asked how to solve problems. One time one of his students tried to get more helpful information by asking if there was another way to solve the problem. Von Neumann looked blank for a moment, thought, and then answered, "Yes.".
Weiner was in fact very absent minded. The following story is told about him: When they moved from Cambridge to Newton his wife, knowing that he would be absolutely useless on the move, packed him off to MIT while she directed the move. Since she was certain that he would forget that they had moved and where they had moved to, she wrote down the new address on a piece of paper, and gave it to him. Naturally, in the course of the day, an insight occurred to him. He reached in his pocket, found a piece of paper on which he furiously scribbled some notes, thought it over, decided there was a fallacy in his idea, and threw the piece of paper away. At the end of the day he went home (to the old address in Cambridge, of course). When he got there he realized that they had moved, that he had no idea where they had moved to, and that the piece of paper with the address was long gone. Fortunately inspiration struck. There was a young girl on the street and he conceived the idea of asking her where he had moved to, saying, "Excuse me, perhaps you know me. I'm Norbert Weiner and we've just moved. Would you know where we've moved to?" To which the young girl replied, "Yes daddy, mommy thought you would forget."
The capper to the story is that I asked his daughter (the girl in the story) about the truth of the story, many years later. She said that it wasn't quite true -- that he never forgot who his children were! The rest of it, however, was pretty close to what actually happened...
Richard Harter, Computer Corp. of America, Cambridge, MA
"When I was young in Poland I met the great mathematician Waclaw Sierpinski. He was old already then and rather absent-minded. Once he had to move to a new place for some reason. His wife wife didn't trust him very much, so when they stood down on the street with all their things, she said:
- Now, you stand here and watch our ten trunks, while I go and get a taxi.
She left and left him there, eyes somewhat glazed and humming absently. Some minutes later she returned, presumably having called for a taxi. Says Mr Sierpinski (possibly with a glint in his eye):
- I thought you said there were ten trunks, but I've only counted to nine.
- No, they're TEN!
- No, count them: 0, 1, 2, ..."
Kai-Mikael, Royal Inst. of Technology, Stockholm, SWEDEN
Albert Einstein, who fancied himself as a violinist, was rehearsing a Haydn string quartet. When he failed for the fourth time to get his entry in the second movement, the cellist looked up and said, "The problem with you, Albert, is that you simply can't count."
George B. Danzig
When I was a Math/Chem grad student at Princeton in 1973-74, there was a story going around about a grad student. This guy was always late. One day he stumbled into class late, saw seven problems written on the board, and wrote them down. As the week went on he began to panic: the math department at Princeton is fiercely competitive, and here he was unable to do most of a simple homework assignment! When the next class rolled around he only had solved two of the problems, although he had a pretty good idea of how to solve a third but not enough time to complete it.
When he dejectedly flung his partial assignment on the prof's desk, the prof asked him "What's that?" "The homework." "What homework?" Eventually it came out that what the prof had written on the board were the seven most important unsolved problems in the field.
This is largely an academic legend, at least according to Jan Harold Brunvand, the author of a series of books on so-called Urban Legends. He talks about it in his latest book _Curses! Broiled Again!_ in the chapter entitled "The Unsolvable Math Problem." It is, however, based in some fact. The Stanford mathematician, George B. Danzig, apparently managed to solve two statistics problems previously unsolved under similar circumstances.
Source not sure
John von Neumann
The following problem can be solved either the easy way or the hard way.
Two trains 200 miles apart are moving toward each other; each one is going at a speed of 50 miles per hour. A fly starting on the front of one of them flies back and forth between them at a rate of 75 miles per hour. It does this until the trains collide and crush the fly to death. What is the total distance the fly has flown?
The fly actually hits each train an infinite number of times before it gets crushed, and one could solve the problem the hard way with pencil and paper by summing an infinite series of distances. The easy way is as follows: Since the trains are 200 miles apart and each train is going 50 miles an hour, it takes 2 hours for the trains to collide. Therefore the fly was flying for two hours. Since the fly was flying at a rate of 75 miles per hour, the fly must have flown 150 miles. That's all there is to it.
When this problem was posed to John von Neumann, he immediately replied, "150 miles."
"It is very strange," said the poser, "but nearly everyone tries to sum the infinite series."
"What do you mean, strange?" asked Von Neumann. "That's how I did it!"
Enrico Fermi, while studying in college, was bored by his math classes. He walked up to the professor and said, "My classes are too easy!" The professor looked at him, and said, "Well, I'm sure you'll find this interesting." Then the professor copied 9 problems from a book to a paper and gave the paper to Fermi. A month later, the professor ran into Fermi, "So how are you doing with the problems I gave you?" "Oh, they are very hard. I only managed to solve 6 of them." The professor was visibly shocked, "What!? But those are unsolved problems!"
Prof. Sacks was the prof for Math 141 (Mathematical Logic) at Harvard last year. The class was so laid back it sounds like something out of Hitchhikers. Sacks also provided us with a few great quotes...
Sacks: Today we're going to do comprehension. What is
Student: I dunno
Student: Are we in the middle of a proof?
Sacks: No, this is just another digression.
Paul Erdos (umlaut over the o) is a Hungarian mathematician, probably in his late eighties by now (actually, just recently deceased), who has become famous for, in addition to his mathematical contributions, his lifestyle. Seems that Erdos was personna non gratis in Hungary for many years. So, during that time he just visited friends all over the world. He would show up at some friend's department and 'visit' for a month, a year, or whatever. Then, at some time known only to him would leave to visit another friend. He continued this for many, many years and may never have had to repeat. Of course, when he left perhaps the person he was staying with was no longer a friend.
"A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems"
-- P. Erdos
Last Revised: 25 Apr 2001.