Gelfand’s Centennial

This is my toast at the Gelfand’s Centennial Conference:

I moved to the US twenty years ago, right after I got my Ph.D in mathematics under the supervision of Israel Gelfand. My first conversation with an American mathematician went like this:

The guy asks me, “What do you do?”

I say, “Mathematics.”

“No, I mean what is your field?”

I can’t understand what he wants, and repeat “Mathematics.”

He says, “No, no, I mean, I do differential geometry. What do you do?”

I do not know how to answer him. My teacher, Israel Gelfand, never mentioned that mathematicians divide mathematics into pieces. So I had to repeat, “My field is mathematics.”

I got asked this question many times and I couldn’t figure out how to give a satisfactory answer, so I quit academia. Well, I quit it not because of the question, but for many other reasons… But answering the question became so much easier when I worked for industry.

A guy asks me, “What do you do?”

I say, “Battle management.”

He says, “What?”

I say, “Battle management. I manage battles, in case there is a war.” And this is it, he doesn’t ask any more questions … ever.

I always knew that industry was not the right place for me. Five years ago, when my children grew up, I realized that it was time to take some risks. So I resigned from my job, and came back to mathematics. But now I know how to answer the question. When someone asks me, What is your field in mathematics? I say, … brag, “I am a student of Israel Gelfand, I just do mathematics.”

I would like to drink to the Unity of Mathematics.



  1. andrew:

    It is always great to know about the people who like mathematics and how they started in this field.

  2. Carl Offner:

    This is very moving. Thank you.

Leave a comment