A Memoir


To David…without whose needle under the thumbnail I would not have bled these words…

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When the ubiquitous phone rang, as it was forever doing, Stan’s hand would cobra-­‐‑strike the receiver and, in response to the unheard ‘how are you?’, he would explosively proclaim, ‘I’m alive !!’ ……. Not anymore.

Stanley Tennenbaum, American mathematician, died on 04 May 2005, age 78 ……. sitting in a chair, a phone in his hand.

On 07 April 2006, a ‘Conference in Memory of Stanley Tennenbaum’ was held at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).  As befits the man, it was casual, nothing pompous, little formality. Filling the typical, unremarkable, non-­‐‑descript conference room were friends, colleagues, graduate students, people who had known him intimately for years, people who had scant acquaintance, people who had met him only indirectly through his work, those who knew him but by name. There were intimates from the student days at the University of Chicago, Bill Howard, Ray Smullyan, Anil Nerode, Mel Nathanson when he was a graduate student at the University of Rochester, John Conway through a chance meeting at one of his talks on surreal numbers, Angus MacIntyre, Stan known to him only through Stan’s theorem ‘No countable non-­‐‑standard model of Peano arithmetic can be recursive’ .

As I watched the video recording plaudits, tributes, critiques, analyses, reminiscences, commentaries I wondered that should I be meeting Stan for the first time through this day, would I have any idea of the man at all? 
Would this pastiche of disconnected yet colorful anecdotes mixed into a stew of wild stories implying a kook or a nut flavored with a soupcon of arid mathematical erudition topped off with a skein of superficial notions of various of his ideas and attitudes provide even an inchoate version? Indeed there appeared an inverse relation as to penetrating understanding of those who knew him best to those who knew him only indirectly through his work ….. the most insightful, sensitive elucidation of his mathematical essence from a younger mathematician who did not know him, only his work, Angus MacIntyre, the great tragedy being that they both rubbed shoulders at the Institute For Advanced Study, but Mr MacIntyre, one of the anointed that Stan would have been fascinated and utterly delighted to know, too shy to speak to him.

That the conference day did take place speaks highly of those attending but the proceedings did not sum the man, bearing little witness to his passion for rational life, his deep curiosity, his robust knowledge, his endlessly fascinating persona, his extraordinary range of interests, his penetrating and creative views, his enormous intellectual stature, his deeply emotional love for life, his fully integrated and largely self constructed philosophical housing, and his placement at least in my mind in the pantheon of American originals.

I met Stan as a freshman of 17 at the University of Rochester in the fall of 1965, he recently appointed fully tenured professor of mathematics, when I happened in on his general calculus course that term. Coming to know him mainly through hanging out at his office over that year, he invited me to live with him and his family my sophomore year, early summer 1966 to early summer 1967, after which I continued to see him off and on until I left the U of R in spring 1969. I saw him once again at the Institute For Advanced Study in the spring of 1971, not again after that.

What follows are my recollections and memories of the man of greatest impact and influence on my life that, though his body spent, his spirit will persist.

These are the memories of a half a century ago, little attempt has been made to rely on anything but memory. As Einstein noted the mind is not a completely reliable tool for recording with fidelity the past. However, should this recounting of my most formative period give you the idea of the man, as Stan would have expressed it, then it has accomplished my aim.

All content © Rob Tully
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