John Milnor’s phone rang at 6AM. It was the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters calling.
Milnor, a New Jersey native, is the 2011 winner of the Abel Prize in mathematics. He’s a topologist and dynamical systems theorist at Stony Brook University in New York state. In May, King Harald of Norway will present Milnor with the $1-million prize, a Nobel-level cachet among mathematicians.
For Milnor, the prize caps a long and distinguished mathematical career. He first attracted attention in 1950, when, as an undergraduate at Princeton University, he solved a previously unsolved problem on the total curvature of knots. In 1956, Milnor proved the existence of “exotic” 7-dimensional spheres. He is also known as a great expositor, whose books present simple, common-sense explanations. John McCleary of Vassar College edits Milnor’s works and says the mathematician is a master of understated elegance. “Reading a paper by him is like wandering into an old, old church. You wander off to one side, into the nave, and suddenly you come across this spectacular altar, or a beautiful painting that was totally unexpected.”
Milnor says that what he loves most about mathematics is “a feeling of miracles.” He adds, “You’re working on a problem and it seems impossibly hard, but then you just put together an idea here and an idea there, and somehow the answer just drops out.”
What I loved most about math is that I Survived Geometry. Talk about miracles. But I do like to listen to RADIOLAB podcasts. It makes things I might not find interesting, well, interesting. Like this show about numbers. The hosts, Robert and Jad, say that whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, chances are that you rely on numbers every day of your life. Numbers confuse us, connect us and even reveal secrets about us.
In 25 Minutes to Go, Johnny Cash counts down the minutes to his hanging. It’s the start of the back-and-forth between Robert and Jad about whether you could live without numbers. Jad introduces his newborn son, Amil, and insists that he has no concept of numbers whatsoever. Like father, like son?
RADIOLAB ~ it’s today’s Per Diem Good Thing.