Monday, March 1, 2010

better in retrospect

The mathematician Steven Strogatz graduated from Loomis in 1976, learning calculus from Don Joffray. Strogatz has a book out, The Calculus of Friendship, talking about his correspondence and friendship with Joff (who I could have sworn had died, but he's still alive at 82, having had a couple of strokes, and long since retired to his house down on the Connecticut coast).

Strogatz is funny and articulate, and in 2003 wrote the excellent Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, so public radio people know him and he's been on at least five different shows in the past couple of weeks. As a result, all my memories of 2 years of calculus with Joff have been coming back (actually 2 1/3, since I got kicked out of Pre-Calculus up into the last term of his Calc AB class, then I had Calc BC and Multivariable). Every time I hear Strogatz on a call-in show describing his time with Joff, I want to call in and say "Yes! That's exactly how it was!". Strogatz tells this story in an October episode of Radio Lab:

There were several striking and peculiar things about him. I mean, probably the first thing is that he was physically incredibly impressive. He would hold the chalk between his enormous fingers, and write on the board, the chalk would pulverize with each stroke, so there'd be this cloud of chalk dust all over him and his big sweater. Another thing that was very unusual about him, he'd be in the middle of a calculation at the board, chalk dust all over him, as usual, then he would space out. He'd get a look in his eye, a kind of far-away look, and then he'd say, "Aw, this reminds me"--with a hushed tone--"This reminds me of the time Jamie Williams calculated the formula for the Nth term in the Fibonacci sequence."

Where Jamie Williams was some random student a couple years ahead of Strogatz. And Joff did do this constantly. He spoke of his past students with love and reverence, especially the ones like Strogatz who surpassed him and went on to be actual mathematicians. Joff sees math problems in everything: at the end of the Radio Lab segment Strogatz talks about seeing him recently, and Joff was thinking about the hawks flying overhead, and how to describe the section of spherical space a hawk can see as it flies overhead. Waves, bicycles, swimming pools, furniture. One day he came in talking about the top knob of staircase railing (what appears to be called a "newel"), theorizing that you'd get that shape as the space carved out by the intersection of 3 orthogonal pipes.

I haven't thought about Joff's classes since I left Loomis. Interestingly, while I remember him and the classes fondly now, even for the better students, Joff's classes were boring to experience: lots of long silences and rambling discourses, a low-energy class in an especially dusty classroom in an old building.

I always feel like I was his most disappointing student: I didn't try very hard, and I am a very bad mathematician, so the kind of exploration that makes Joff happy, and that gives math its vitality as an art and a discipline--modeling problems and constructing proofs--is frustrating rather than fun for me. (It might be a fun project at some point in my life to see if I can learn those things.) Being reminded so vividly of Joff's pure love of the game, I might write him a letter to tell him that even though I was a bad student, he got the point across.


  1. Amazing what Google can turn up! Actually my daughter just went to Chile to study only to experience the big earthquake the first week she was there. Steve is a great story teller. Brings back some good memories. When did you graduate Loomis?

    - Jamie Williams

  2. Nice. Hi!

    I graduated in 1995. I think you and Steve were early 70s or so? Which gives a sort of epic sweep to Joff's teaching career. Did you end up studying higher math after Loomis?

    Where was your daughter? Is she okay/still here? There's 13 of us in our volunteer group (most are likely a bit closer to her age, around 23/24) and if she'd like some contacts, we'll all be around the Valparaiso area from April through November.

  3. I graduated in 73. Steve was 76. I studied engineering and am still working in that field. Joff was actually a contemporary and boyhood friend of my father so I assume he was teaching for fifteen or so years before I got there.

    My daughter is in Santiago and had no problems with the quake. It may well have been more scary for the folks back home.