17: The Princeton math connection
Mail on 17 as the exemplary
takes me to mathematicians, especially those at
Princeton. As it happens, I have an A.B. in mathematics from
Princeton (before I was wooed away by the siren charms of linguistics),
so it's entirely possible I picked up the idea there.
(One of the oddities of blogging is that you can post on some topic,
get an assortment of responses, post a follow-up, and then get a fresh
set of responses going off in some new direction. No doubt my
habit of not getting around to posting follow-ups for months or even
years -- hey, some topics are evergreen -- means that I'm getting a new
audience each time.)
In any case, Douglas Davidson writes to say: "Mathematicians are
particularly fond of 17 (going back to Gauss, at least) and are likely
to use it as an example." He points me to the wonderfully silly Yellow Pigs page
on 17, noting that Hampshire College math professor David C. Kelly
gives, or at least used to give, an annual lecture on the number; to
further Yellow Pig information on another site about 17s
where it is noted that mathematicians Kelly and Mike Spivak were
graduate students together at Princeton in the 1960s and "reportedly
got the yellow pig 17 idea in a bar"; and to the Wikipedia page on
, where the Princeton connection is solidified:
17 is known as the Feller number, after
the famous mathematician William Feller who taught at Princeton
University for many years. Feller would say, when discussing an
unsolved mathematical problem, that if it could be proved for the case
n = 17 then it could be proved for all positive integers n. He would
also say in lectures, "Let's try this for an arbitrary value of n, say
Then comes Lance Knobel, reporting that
Thirty years ago I roomed for a year at
university with the best mathematician I've ever known. He and some
fellow math whizzes, who had all been on the US team for the
international math Olympiad, created a club, whose principal tenet was
that 17 was the most random number.
What university? Princeton, of course. And the
extraordinarily talented roommate? Eric Lander
biology professor at both MIT and Harvard Medical School, founding
director of the Broad Institute, and many many other things.
Bachelor's in math from Princeton in 1978.
When I was an undergraduate at Princeton (1958-62, omigod), I didn't
take any courses from Feller, but there were three professors who might
have introduced me to the fabled randomness of 17: Bob Gunning, Paul
Benacerraf, and Ray Smullyan, all three of them people with delightful
senses of humor (and all three of them wonderful teachers).
Bob Gunning taught the honors calculus course I took in my first
semester, thereby leading me to expect, unrealistically, that the rest
of the math faculty would be as extraordinary in the classroom (and
outside of it) as he was. Here's a piece of a Princeton
Alumni Weekly story
about his receiving the distinguished teaching
award from Princeton three years ago:
Colleagues and students alike praised
his skills at explaining difficult mathematical concepts and his
devotion to students. "He has a truly unusual ability for exposition of
mathematics at any level," according to one colleague. "He has a clear
insight into the subject matter and in the capacity of his students to
absorb the material. His classes are superbly organized and his
lectures have just the right mix of theory, examples and humor."
Gunning's humor was mentioned many times in his nomination letters for
the award. "What sets [Professor] Gunning apart are the intangibles,"
wrote one student. "He is always smiling. He tells horrendously nerdy
math jokes that never fail to make everyone laugh."
The philosopher (of mathematics, among other things) Paul Benacerraf
was the adviser for my senior thesis in mathematics. A wryly
funny man then as now. There's a Wikipedia page
Mathematician, logician, philosopher, and magician Ray Smullyan is, of
course, famous for the good humor of his books on recreational
mathematics and logic. He too has a Wikipedia page
Any one of these three might have planted the random-17 seed. Or
I could have gotten it from another student. So hard to tell at
this distance in time.
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 21, 2006 08:46 PM