An interview with Prof Eduardo L Ortiz

Eduardo L Ortiz is Professor of Mathematics and the History of Mathematics at Imperial College, London. He was Professeur de la Première Classe, Universitè d'Orléans, France, 1992-1993; Foreign Fellow, National Academy of Sciences, Buenos Aires 1998; Winner of J Babini History of Science National Prize, Argentina, 1990; Chief Editor, The Humboldt Library, London. He was John Simon Guggenheim Research Fellow in the Department of History at Harvard University from 1996 to 1998.

Jenny Kirkland (Undergraduate student, University of St Andrews) wrote to Professor Ortiz on 5 December 2005 asking if he would be able to give her any information about Julio Rey Pastor. Professor Ortiz very kindly agreed to meet Jenny in his office in London on 25 January 2005, where the following interview took place.

Kirkland: When did you first meet Julio Rey Pastor?
Ortiz: I was a student of his course on Bourbaki's Elements at Buenos Aires University in 1950, but the first time I properly met him was perhaps a little more interesting. He came across me in the library one day, reading his most famous book "Análisis Algabraico", which we (his students) all called 'the red brick', because it was red on the outside and as dry and boring as a brick inside! Anyway, he asked me what I thought of the book, and I asked him if he wanted my honest opinion. When I told him what I really thought of it, he thought this was hilarious and confessed that he couldn't stand the book himself and agreed with me 100%! That was the beginning of a lasting friendship between the two of us.

Kirkland: Do you know what brought Don Pastor to Argentina?
Ortiz: I believe it was initially the result of an offence caused by Don Vegas, who was the chair of geometry at Madrid University. As I understand it, Vegas was using Don Pastor's own book on geometry to teach his courses, which of course was insulting to him. Also, since the Insitucion Cultura Espanola invited him, I suppose a higher salary would have attracted him.

Kirkland: Was he an inspirational lecturer?
Ortiz: Yes, and very original... in fact, often quite challenging. He frequently presented our class with a problem to solve immediately, and he always encouraged us to avoid memorising proofs. He would argue that it was better to ask oneself from the very beginning "what am I trying to prove?", rather than reproducing the steps of another mathematician. He was more concerned with originality than time, and for this reason he taught us always from first principles, aiming to develop this sense of originality in us.

Kirkland: Can you give an example of this originality in his lecturing?
Ortiz: In the course I took on Bourbaki's Elements, Don Pastor criticised Bourbaki's rigour, suggesting that it was sometimes necessary to guess rather than limit oneself to carrying out detailed and time-consuming work. This was extremely radical at the time, since Bourbaki's Theory of Sets was, at that time an uncontested predecessor of Euclid's Elements.

Kirkland: You mentioned that he became a personal friend. How would you describe him as a person?
Ortiz: He had an extraordinary mixture of generosity and meanness. He never lent any of his friends a dollar and yet, he paid for the immigration of many mathematicians and scientists at the beginning of the Civil War in Spain. He was also a very lively man with a sharp sense of humour! But he could be quite controversial at times. That paper he wrote, in 1913 I think, about the terrible state of sixteenth century Spanish science brought him severe repercussions. It was arguably a very negative picture of Spain he gave, and for this many people accused him of being unpatriotic. He also gave a speech once, on the future of Science in Spain, I think just before the Civil War, where he stated that if hate was the necessary ingredient for development, then so be it. Very explosive.

Kirkland: Would you say that he was a political man?
Ortiz: No, he was perhaps a quarrelsome man but to a large extent he avoided political discussion or opinion. In 1934, his friend Esteban Terradas, another important Spanish mathematician, was expelled from Madrid University for political reasons and I think this made Pastor wary of most political ideology. It didn't help him much though; he was still expelled from Argentina, by Perón in 1952 along with many other foreigners.

Kirkland: What do you feel was Don Pastor's greatest contribution and do you believe he has obtained the recognition he deserves?
Ortiz: For me, the most impressive feature of Pastor's mathematics was that he upheld a panoramic view and succeeded in keeping abreast of all areas and looking for new topics to challenge and he passed this outlook on to his students and contemporaries. I think he was more an inspiring teacher than researcher, but unfortunately his contributions to mathematics have been largely overlooked because of the adversities of history.

Interview by: Jenny Kirkland (University of St Andrews)

JOC/EFR August 2005

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