Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Mathematician tried moving a table

William Feller was a probability theorist at Princeton University. One day he and his wife wanted to move a large table from one room of their large house to another, but, try as they might, they couldn’t get it though the door. They pushed and pulled and tipped the table on its side and generally tried everything they could, but it just wouldn’t go.

Eventually, Feller went back to his desk and worked out a mathematical proof that the table would never be able to pass through the door.

While he was doing this, his wife got the table through the door
-Professor Stewart’s Hoard of Mathematical Treasures

More on Feller;
His lectures were loud and entertaining. He wrote very large on the blackboard, in a beautiful Italianate handwriting with lots of whirls. Sometimes only one huge formula appeared on the blackboard during the entire period; the rest was handwaving. His proof—insofar as one can speak of proofs—were often deficient. Nonethless, they were convincing, and the results became unforgettably clear after he had explained them. The main idea was never wrong.

He took umbrage when someone interrupted his lecturing by pointing out some glaring mistake. He became red in the face and raised his voice, often to full shouting range. It was reported that on occasion he had asked the objector to leave the classroom. The expression "proof by intimidation" was coined after Feller's lectures (by Mark Kac). During a Feller lecture, the hearer was made to feel privy to some wondrous secret, one that often vanished by magic as he walked out of the classroom at the end of the period. Like many great teachers, Feller was a bit of a con man.

I learned more from his rambling lectures than from those of anyone else at Princeton. I remember the first lecture of his I ever attended. It was also the first mathematics course I took at Princeton (a course in sophomore differential equations). The first impression he gave was one of exuberance, of great zest for living, as he rapidly wrote one formula after another on the blackboard while his white mane floated in the air. After the first lecture, I had learned two words which I had not previously heard: "lousy" and "nasty."

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