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Otton Nikodym balances teaching and research.
exactly is the implied contract between a college teacher and his students?
I've heard it put a number of ways, from "they pay my salary so I teach
them" to much more philosophical presentations. But there was one version
I heard about 1966 that has always stuck in my mind.
Otton Nikodym, in English Otto,
was a distinguished Polish research mathematician during the first
half of the twentieth century. Most mathematicians of my time
at least remember the name of the Radon-Nikodym Theorem, an important theorem
of mathematical analysis. Nikodym had a wife who was considerably
younger -- I think she was his Ph.D. student at the University of Warsaw,
where he was on the faculty before the Second World War.
During the war, of course,
the German Nazis were fairly efficient at exterminating the Polish intelligentsia.
Nikodym and his wife escaped into the countryside, disguised as peasants.
They were sheltered for the duration of the war in a small village, hidden
and fed by the peasants. In exchange for being taken care of, they tutored
the village children in arithmetic, and sometimes in other subjects, generally
at the primary level.
After the war, they returned
to Warsaw, and Prof. Nikodym was again on the faculty of the University.
But when the communists took over, he realized that once again his survival
would depend on politics and not on mathematical ability. He and his wife
went to a mathematical conference in London in 1948, and looked for a way
to stay in the West. Since he was already at least 65, and his spoken
English was limited, this was not trivial to arrange.
Professor William Transue,
of Kenyon College, a small undergraduate college in Ohio, was at the meeting
and thought that something could be worked out. Kenyon was in a very
small village, which might simplify the cultural adjustment, and Transue
felt his students would benefit by exposure to such a distinguished man,
even in the presence of the language barrier. He contacted the President
of Kenyon, a job offer was made, and the Nikodyms moved to Gambier, Ohio.
In the early days the Nikodyms went to class together; he lectured from
a prepared text and she helped field the questions. They were a dramatic
contrast to the usual inhabitants of central Ohio, moving together through
this strange culture and language. The small college town was a big
help: there was usually someone who could translate, by way of French or
German, if there was difficulty communicating in the butcher shop or at
the barber, and the shopkeepers knew the college would straighten out any
problems By a few years later, his English had improved enough to manage
questions himself and his wife no longer needed to attend his classes.
By the time
I was a student at Kenyon and took a course from Nikodym (an introduction
to Hilbert Space, using the text by Halmos) in the early 1960's, he was
in his eighties. A small man, somewhat stooped over, he was driven
to work every morning by his wife. She followed two paces behind as he
walked to his office, removed his coat for him and hung it up, then went
home until she returned for him in the evening. A sweet, softspoken
man, he still lectured from a prepared text but his English was limited
and we often had to phrase our questions in French and German, a good experience
for us students but it generally restricted his enrollment to senior math
majors planning to attend graduate school, not a large number of people
in this small college which then had about 800 students. A high point
of our undergraduate education was being invited home for dinner at the
Nikodym home. It was a small but elegant apartment carved from a large
house on a hilltop owned by the college, built well over a century
ago as the palace of the then Episcopal Bishop of Ohio. Mrs. Nikodym
served what seemed to us a very European dinner, and with some prompting
from her husband told of their earlier lives and especially their hiding
out during the Second World War.
I don't know how Nikodym's
contract with the college was organized, given that he had started teaching
at the usual retirement age, and left any pension rights behind in Poland
in 1948. We generally understood that he would go on teaching as long as
he, and the students, enjoyed it. But the smallness of the college meant
that the number of senior math majors was unpredictable, and eventually,
about 1965 or 1966, the day came when only one student could be found to
sign up for Professor Nikodym's course.
Nikodym came in the
first day with his prepared opening lecture, which he delivered to the
single student. It began "Every student buy copybook [holding up a small
notebook]. I put important theorems on blackboard, you copy theorems in
copybook. If you are absent, you borrow copybook from another student,
copy theorems from his copybook in your copybook."
attempted to interrupt and explain that this would not work with only one
student in the class, but perhaps the student's French or German was too
weak to reach understanding, or perhaps Nikodym was unable to make the
adjustment. The student came and told the mathematics faculty that
he felt he had to drop the course, and since William Transue had
left to teach at SUNY Binghamton, it fell to Dr. Dan Finkbeiner to break
the news to Dr, Nikodym.
I'm not sure what
exactly Nikodym said to Finkbeiner, but Nikodym marched straight in to
confront President Lund of the College, and the words he used were
repeated by President Lund and stuck firmly in my mind. Nikodym said
"My job to teach mathematics, I give lectures mathematics. Your job send
students to listen to lectures. IF YOU NOT SEND STUDENTS, THEN
I NOT GIVE LECTURES. I get research grant National Science Foundation,
only do research."
And he did.
Edward T. Ordman (C) 2001
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