Gian-Carlo Rota on Alonzo Church

In the article Fine Hall in its golden era which appeared in the American Mathematical Society's A century of mathematics in America (1989), Gian-Carlo Rota describes his teacher Alonzo Church:


It cannot be a complete coincidence that several outstanding logicians of the twentieth century found shelter in asylums at some time in their lives: Cantor, Zermelo, Gödel, Peano, and Post are some. Alonzo Church was one of the saner among them, though in some ways his behaviour must be classified as strange, even by mathematicians' standards.

He looked like a cross between a panda and a large owl. He spoke slowly in complete paragraphs which seemed to have been read out of a book, evenly and slowly enunciated, as by a talking machine. When interrupted, he would pause for an uncomfortably long period to recover the thread of the argument. He never made casual remarks: they did not belong in the baggage of formal logic. For example, he would not say: "It is raining." Such a statement, taken in isolation, makes no sense. (Whether it is actually raining or not does not matter; what matters is consistency.) He would say instead: "I must postpone my departure for Nassau Street, inasmuch as it is raining, a fact which I can verify by looking out the window." (These were not his exact words.) Gilbert Ryle has criticized philosophers for testing their theories of language with examples which are never used in ordinary speech. Church's discourse was precisely one such example.

He had unusual working habits. He could be seen in a corridor in Fine Hall at any time of day or night, rather like the Phantom of the Opera. Once, on Christmas day, I decided to go to the Fine Hall library (which was always open) to look up something. I met Church on the stairs. He greeted me without surprise.

Every lecture began with a ten-minute ceremony of erasing the blackboard until it was absolutely spotless. We tried to save him the effort by erasing the board before his arrival, but to no avail. The ritual could not be disposed of; often it required water, soap, and brush, and was followed by another ten minutes of total silence while the blackboard was drying. Perhaps he was preparing the lecture while erasing; I don't think so. His lectures hardly needed any preparation. They were a literal repetition of the typewritten text he had written over a period of twenty years, a copy of which was to be found upstairs in the Fine Hall library. (The manuscript's pages had yellowed with the years, and smelled foul. Church's definitive treatise was not published for another five years.)

Occasionally, one of the sentences spoken in class would be at variance with the text upstairs, and he would warn us in advance of the discrepancy between oral and written presentation. For greater precision, everything he said (except some fascinating side excursions which he invariably prefixed by a sentence like: "I will now interrupt and make a metamathematical [sic] remark") was carefully written down on the blackboard, in large English-style handwriting, like that of a grade-school teacher, complete with punctuation and paragraphs. Occasionally, he carelessly skipped a letter in a word. At first we pointed out these oversights, but we quickly learned that they would create a slight panic, so we kept our mouths shut. Once he had to use a variant of a previously proved theorem, which differed only by a change of notation. After a moment of silence, he turned to the class and said: "I could simply say 'likewise', but I'd better prove it again."

It may be asked why anyone would bother to sit in a lecture which was the literal repetition of an available text. Such a question would betray an oversimplified view of what goes on in a classroom. What one really learns in class is what one does not know at the time one is learning. The person lecturing to us was logic incarnate. His pauses, hesitations, emphases, his betrayals of emotion (however rare), and sundry other nonverbal phenomena taught us a lot more logic than any written text could. We learned to think in unison with him as he spoke, as if following the demonstration of a calisthenics instructor. Church's course permanently improved the rigor of our reasoning.


JOC/EFR December 2008

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