Thursday, April 23, 2015


Mathematics: “A subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true” (Bertrand Russell)  Not that I believe Russell ever knew what he was talking about.  But perhaps that is just me.

Brushed some sticky new cobwebs from my hair and forehead as I passed through the attic door.

It seems I had driven down Woodstock, turned up Westmoreland, wheeled into the Foster-Scholz parking lot. Now I am walking past those residence halls, passing the twin Doug firs on my right.  My copy of my thesis is clutched in my left hand and the butterflies are swarming in my stomach.  At the end of the next hour, my degree will be either confirmed or denied.

My footsteps on the stone echoed throughout the near-empty old edifice as I neared the room in which I was to defend my thesis, or, as I thought of it, to be interrogated.  At the doorway of room 106, stood my thesis advisor, Dr. Dennehy.  I had taken only one class under Tom Dennehy, but he had been a rock throughout the time of my preparation for this moment.  He shook my hand and  said, "Don't forget that I am in your corner, and I know you are ready.  They are ready for us, and I will make the introductions after which the Chair will be in charge."

Dr. D said, "This is our candidate.  Be as gentle as possible."  A bit of humor in an attempt to reduce the tension.  "Doctor Hunt, I believe you know Dr. Hunt, Dr. Chrestenson, whom you also know; and this is Dr. Roberts."

My head starts to spin and black spots swirl in front of my eyes.  Dr. Roberts?  The legendary Dr. Roberts about whom stories swirl across campus like a monsoon over Formosa?  Joe Roberts had been absent from campus during my time there.  A sabbatical, a guest lectureship at Gottingen, or whichever of the circumstances speculated upon happened to be the correct one, if any of them were.

"And this is Dr. Williams.  She will be chairing this session. He is all yours, Dr. Williams."


The next hour could have been days.  Or weeks.  For all sense of time folded into one eternal enclosure of my brain in a pressure cooker, steam up!  And I am supposed to be able to think clearly enough to make a cogent summary of where I started and where I went with this thing.  I am supposed to be able to intelligently answer the questions of these mathematicians.

And I did, or at least I guess I did, for after the most excruciating five minutes of banishment to the hallway, Dr.  Dennehy called me back into the room, Dr. Williams stood and extended her hand. "Congratulations, vanilla," smile beaming across her visage, "This committee finds your work meets the required standards, and your presentation here today is commendable."

The end.

Notes to the experience
1.  Thomas P. Dennehy taught the introductory course to the program.  This extremely pleasant man seemed truly to want everyone to succeed.  Unfortunately, the washout rate following his class was about fifty percent.  Not his fault. 
2.  Burrowes Hunt was known to all as "Buzz."  He wrote a textbook creatively entitled Calculus and Linear Algebra.
He had just received the galley proofs from the publisher.  He arranged to get enough copies for everyone in his class.  It was our textbook, and he got the free services of a dozen readers to help him make the final edit.  I still have my tattered paper-bound copy, and you may get one, too, if you wish.  Amazon has a dozen or so copies available.
3.  Hugh Chrestenson taught the non-Euclidean geometry course.  I did really well in that class.  Yes, that is a boast. And I have probably forgotten 97.6% of what I learned. And that is a fact.
4.  Joe Roberts was legendary on that campus and his career there ultimately spanned more than fifty years.  An oft-told story was that his doctoral dissertation required but half-page.  I suppose that might have been embellished to state that it was originally written on the back of an envelope, but then, A. Lincoln had proprietary rights to that one.


Vee said...

In my mind's eye this account summons up a few stomach butterflies and a couple of sweaty palms. Orals, that frightening (maybe even terrifying) right of passage. Sadly, some don't succeed but, miraculously, some survive the experience and receive a "stamp of approval."

vanilla said...

Vee, proud of you, too, that you received that "stamp of approval," and you were defending a dissertation whereas I had only to deal with a thesis.

Vee said...

Vanilla, from what I have heard, there is no appreciable difference.