Near Misses: Paths not Crossed with Richard Bellman

World Scientific Publishing recently had a sale of electronic books, in which I came across and downloaded:

Bellman, Richard (1984). Eye of the Hurricane: An Autobiography,  World Scientific. Web:  https://books.google.com/books?id=6rN7QgAACAAJ; http://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/0076

for US$9.90. I had heard that Bellman had a reputation of meeting someone, having a chat, and sending them a manuscript to co-author the next day. In this way he was the applied math complement to Paul Erdös, about whom I wrote:

Gordon, R. (2011). Cosmic Embryo #1: My Erdös Number Is 2i.  http://www.science20.com/cosmic_embryo/cosmic_embryo_1_my_erd%C3%B6s_number_2i

While Bellman doesn’t discuss this story, he did love to travel, and much of the book is about the places he has been, even including in some cases the addresses of hotels he liked. He was indeed prolific: “Over the course of his career he published 619 papers and 39 books. During the last 11 years of his life [1920-1984] he published over 100 papers despite suffering from crippling complications of brain surgery” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_E._Bellman). Whoever added his CV to the end of the autobiography upped it to 620 papers and 40 books. While it was written in 1978, his autobiography seems to have been published after his death in 1984. He doesn’t even mention his medical condition in the book.

What what I found uncanny about his autobiography is how many people he names who I also knew, and one he didn’t name, but undoubtedly knew: my own father, Jack Gordon. I deduce this because both played handball at Brighton Beach near the boardwalk to Coney Island, New York, on one-wall courts. Bellman, born in 1920, was 7 months older than my father, who I recall was winning at handball at age 13, on those courts. Maybe he trounced Bellman. While my father focussed on handball all his life and became a USA national champion (Singer, Stuffy (1994). Gordon honored with Kendler Award. Handball 44(1), 18.), Bellman was an all-round jock, claiming to excel at other sports: tennis, table tennis, track, football, basketball, baseball, swimming. He even did some ballet. I can recall those courts, the boardwalk, the hot summer beach on which one could hard boil an egg, building sand castles, the lines of rocks with oysters perpendicular to the beach, out into the water, and Nathan’s hotdog stand. It was there my mother, then Diana Lazaroff, met my father. This book rang of childhood nostalgia for me. I was raised nearby until age 5, when my parents moved to Chicago about 1948.

But our lives were further intertwined. I postdoced with Stanislaw Ulam; he reviewed Ulam’s “A Collection of Mathematical Problems”, and knew him well. Three more misses: “Nixon announced that two billion dollars would be available for cancer research. The experts in the field were to gather in Warrentown, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, to divide up the pie. I was chairman of a committee on the use of mathematical methods. The other members of the committee were, John Jacques, Fred Grodins, Bob Rosen, Monas Berman, and John Hearon…. At Warrentown, we had a good time deciding how we would spend the money. Alas, it was a typical Nixon trick. He posed for TV cameras and gave away pens, but not a penny ever appeared.” I had postdoced with Bob Rosen at the Center for Theoretical Biology at SUNY/Buffalo, worked under John Hearon at the Mathematical Research Branch at NIH, and knew Monas Berman while there. Natalie and I had a strange encounter with Bellman’s former student John Casti at the Third International Workshop, Open Problems of Computational Molecular Biology, Telluride, Colorado, July 11-25, 1993, albeit after Bellman’s death. Casti, guest of honor, left the conference the first evening, when (not knowing who he was) I said to him “we can explain that” in reference to a remark about embryology by the host. Beyond that, the book is full of names of mathematicians and scientists whose work I knew, a slice in time through that culture, written by someone one generation ahead of me, but overlapping. It was quite a journey, watching Bellman’s parallel life.

It was from a couple of Bellman’s math books that I learned about concepts such as differential-delay equations and invariant embedding. The former helped me understand the 30 year cycle in academic hiring, reported going back to the 1800’s in:

Nyhart, L.K. (1995). Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and the German Universities, 1800-1900. Chicago,  University of Chicago Press.

Let’s say jobs are available for would-be professors. Lots of students decide to go into the open disciplines. By the time they are trained (the delay), the jobs are being snarfed up. So the next generation of students seek other disciplines. And so it goes, with no one doing long-range, 30 or more year planning, to equalize supply and demand. I suppose we could call the oscillating academic job market an emergent phenomenon! I actually hit one of those peaks, at age 33 in 1977, when I applied for 100 jobs, got a couple of interviews, and no offers. Out of luck, with 300 to 500 younger applicants per job opening at that time, I answered a phone call from Winnipeg asking me to recommend someone for a job there with “How about me?”. And so I ended up at the University of Manitoba.

Like Ulam (who is discussed in my blog on Erdös), Bellman was a mathematician first. For instance, he had a moral compunction to work on the H-bomb, but when his math didn’t prove useful to the project, he dropped out, rather than solve the problem with whatever it took. As with Ulam, we would not have seen eye to eye: “There is a subtle difference between mathematical biologists and theoretical biologists. Mathematical biologists tend to be employed in mathematical departments and to be a bit more interested in math inspired by biology than in the biological problems themselves, and vice versa” (Gordon, R. (1993). Careers in theoretical biology. Carolina Tips 56(3), 9-11, http://life.biology.mcmaster.ca/~brian/biomath/careers.theo.biol.html).

I was about to wind up this blog by adding a photo of Bellman, but came across something even better, a movie by his grandson:

Bellman, G.L. (2011). The Bellman Equation [movie].  http://www.bellmanequation.com; http://www.amazon.com/Equation-Goldstein-Betty-Jo-Dreyfuss-Landauer/dp/B00C6WHRM4

So rather than color my blog by the movie, I’ll post this first, and enjoy the movie tonight with Natalie.

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