Who is this mathematician?
May 16, 2013 8:27 PM   Subscribe

Can someone tell me the name of the mathematician referenced in the following? I read a story some time ago about the Ph.D. dissertation defense of a famous mathematician. In the story, the mathematician was such a strong candidate that when the defense ended, one of the committee members said to another member: "Thank God that's over. He was starting to ask us questions!" Who was the committee member talking about?
posted by Bokmakierie to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I am a mathematician, and I've never heard this story. But I do want to say that basically all wacky stories about famous people's math Ph.D. defenses are apocryphal.
posted by escabeche at 8:45 PM on May 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

A few sites suggest it was said of Robert Oppenheimer.

posted by logicpunk at 8:48 PM on May 16, 2013

Argh! Sorry for getting the occupation wrong! It seems like it must be Oppenheimer. From logicpunk's second link: "Phew, I'm glad that's over. He was on the point of questioning me." Thanks!
posted by Bokmakierie at 8:58 PM on May 16, 2013

James Franck, himself a Nobel Laureate, made the comment, according to logicpunk's first link, a 1958 Vassar article. Oppie's wiki page attributes source of the quote to a 1948 Time article, but it's behind a pay wall. Anyone have access?
posted by at at 11:23 PM on May 16, 2013

Hooray for library e-reserves. Here's the quote from the Time article (all done while watching Family Guy from my couch):

Max Born invited him to Göttingen, where he earned his Ph.D. (at 23) three weeks after enrolling. Oppenheimer's Ph.D. thesis was a brilliant paper on quantum mechanics: Zur Quantentheorie kontinuierlicher Spektren. After the oral exam, a colleague asked Physicist James Franck (now at the University of Chicago) how it had gone with Oppenheimer. Replied Franck: "I got out of there just in time. He was beginning to ask me questions."
posted by sbutler at 11:34 PM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

This has a resemblance (one might even say a family resemblance) to the stories told about Wittgenstein's PhD viva, which ended with Wittgenstein saying to his examiners (Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore): 'Don't worry, I know you'll never understand it.'
posted by verstegan at 3:53 AM on May 17, 2013

I was just trying to spare their feelings.
posted by wittgenstein at 1:58 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

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