As I thought about how to phrase these few remarks about Gian-Carlo Rota, I found that my thoughts of him coalesced around some descriptive adjectives. These are of course only the palest renditions of his reality, but I offer them as a small eulogy.
Gian-Carlo was generous in his praise, of his own students and of others, and was generous with his help. His book reviews, which he so loved to write, showed clearly that his preference was for praise. If the book was excellent, his praise was lavish; if the book was somewhat less, then his praise was somewhat less than lavish, but only very infrequently did he write a really negative review. In such cases he much preferred simply not to review the book.
His letters of recommendation were known far and wide for their supportiveness. No student of his, or other young mathematician, ever went wrong by asking him to write a letter on their behalf. In a very trying job market, he went to bat for his students vigorously and often. His own published papers had wide ranging bibliographies, citing with approval many publications of others, and crediting them with having been influential in his own work.
Gian-Carlo Rota was elegant in his thought, in his speech, his dress, and in his general demeanor. As regards speech, Ernst Schrödinger said, in the preface to his book “What is Life,” that a man forever wears his native language about his shoulders like a cloak that cannot be discarded. By saying that, Schrödinger was asking the reader’s forgiveness for his perceived lesser ability to express himself well in English, as opposed to his native German. But he should not have sought this forgiveness by appealing to a general proposition. Although perhaps Schrödinger wore his native language as such a cloak, Gian-Carlo Rota’s ability to express himself in English, as opposed to his native Italian, was matchless. Listening to him we heard the Italian origins in his intonations and pronunciation, but he was rapier sharp in his use of English, and was never at a loss for exactly the right word. His sentences, both written and spoken, prepared and impromptu, were perfectly formed and featured a rainfall of extremely precise adjectives, colloquialisms, and so forth.
Here is a sample, from his essay “Persons and Places”: “… Pattern recognition? Image processing? Filtering through noise? Big words in the world of big bucks, problems clamoring for fast solution. The know-nothings will be surprised to learn that the solutions to these “practical” problems are more likely to come from the work of the Harish-Chandras than from the Mickey Mouse animations on which the Federal Government wastes millions. All we need is a team of gifted middlemen, trained in the latest techniques of jungle warfare, to carry the message where it is most needed.”
Now you may agree or disagree with that thesis, but you will surely agree that the cloak of his native Italian did not constrain Gian-Carlo’s English writing one little bit.
He was elegant in his dress. “Herbert,” he once said to me in disbelief, “you don’t really mean to tell me that you teach your students in a sweater and with no necktie?” The disillusionment in his voice was palpable. He believed that the formal process of education necessitated formal dress, so as to set the atmosphere correctly. When he appeared to lecture, dressed in his own dark suits with well chosen cravats and handkerchiefs, he was a formidable presence before having uttered even a single word.
Gianco was an important – a very influential – mathematician. His series of papers in the 1960’s, entitled “On the foundations of combinatorial theory” moved the subject of combinatorics from being regarded as a blue-collar technical activity by the mathematical community, to a vigorous, free-standing creative subject that attracted a bright and enthusiastic following. But it was those papers that did it – those papers coupled with the persona of Gian-Carlo, who presented the ideas of the Möbius functions and of combinatorial geometry etc. with depth and flair.
Unfortunately I was on the west coast and unable to attend his recent memorial service at MIT. I heard, from Curtis Greene and others, that the overall tone of the remarks was best described by the adjective that you now see before you, “beloved”. His students, his colleagues, his friends expressed their deep sense of loss. I wish to express mine here today. He was a wonderful human being and a brilliant and profound mathematician. I will miss him greatly.
--- from remarks delivered at a Special Session in his
honor at the AMS meeting, January, 2000.
Visit the memorial web site for Gian-Carlo Rota.
Read the obituary
written by Richard Stanley.