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The Faculty-Staff Newsletter, e-mail edition
Santa Clara University, October 16, 2006, Vol. 7, No. 3


Paul R. Halmos (1916-2006)

Born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 3, 1916, Halmos at the age of 13 moved with his family to Chicago. He attended high school there and later enrolled at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, from which he received his Ph.D. in 1938, under the supervision of Joseph Doob. From there he went to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for two years, where he served as assistant to John von Neumann. After his years at the institute he moved to academic positions at Syracuse University; the University of Chicago; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; the University of Hawaii; the University of California, Santa Barbara; Indiana University; and Santa Clara University, from which he retired in 1995. He had also held visiting appointments at Harvard University, Tulane University, the University of Montevideo, the University of Miami (Florida), the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Washington (Seattle), the University of Edinburgh, Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, and the University of Western Australia.

A brilliant writer and lecturer, Halmos not only wrote roughly 100 research papers, but also 16 books and many book reviews. Several of his books are easily accessible to a non-specialist audience, notably his memoirs, titled I Want to Be a Mathematician: An Automathography, and a pioneering volume, I Have a Photographic Memory, a record of a lifetime of taking pictures of mathematicians.

As a teacher, he was extraordinarily effective, usually using a modified Moore method to encourage student participation in the discovery of mathematics. For this he was awarded the Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) in 1994.

For the clarity of his writing and his lectures he was eve n more widely admired. His work was often witty and colorful, indeed provocative at times, but always well-planned and polished. When asked about the importance of computers, he replied that they are important, but not to mathematics. He then proceeded to explain why. And he actually wrote an article titled “Applied mathematics is bad mathematics.” Asked about this, he first replied, “First it is. Second it isn’t . .. [Applied mathematics] is a good contribution. It serves humanity. It solves problems ... but much too often it is bad, ugly, badly arranged, sloppy, untrue, undigested, unorganized, and unarchitected mathematics.” Those who knew him learned to check for that mischievous look in his eye when he made statements like these. He knew what he was doing; he was provoking discussion. And provoke discussion he did.

Influential in the mathematical world, he served as vice president (1981-82) and subsequently on the Council and Board of Trustees of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) and on the Board of Governors of the MAA. For his outstanding work in mathematics he was awarded the prestigious Leroy P. Steele Prize of the AMS and the Distinguished Service Award of the MAA. For his writing he won the Chauvenet Prize, two Lester R. Ford Awards, and the George Pólya Award, all from the MAA. He served a five-year term as editor of the American Mathematical Monthly and held editorial positions for Mathe matical Reviews, the Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society, the Journal fÿr die reine und angewandte Mathematik, and the Indiana Journal of Mathematics. He also edited four book series for Springer Verlag: the Ergebnisse der Mathematik, Problem Books, Undergraduate Texts and Graduate Texts in Mathematics.

Though he had roots in Hungary, he always thought of himself as an American mathematician. Hungary nevertheless honored him with membership in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Further, he was elected to membership in the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He held honorary doctorates from St. Andrews University, DePauw University, Kalamazoo College, and the University of Waterloo. Among his honors were a Guggenheim Fellowship.

In recent years, Halmos and his wife were recognized for their philanthropy. In 2003 they gave a large gift to the MAA to develop an existing building in Washington, D.C., to become a meetings center. Already in use for various mathematical activities, the center will be dedicated in April 2007. In addition they endowed book prize funds for both the AMS and the MAA.

Halmos is survived by his wife of 60 years, Virginia, of Los Gatos. In line with Halmos’s request, no services are planned.