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A Math Whiz Who Was a True Dodo

A GOOD letter (for which, thanks!) comes from a reader in zip code 19355, telling me she was acquainted with Dodo Willard and spouse, and she cherishes the recollections.

So do I.

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Dodo, whose name was George, shared some undergraduate improbabilities with me and played the violin with a dogged passion that was more often heard than appreciated.

He majored in mathematics, which I did not, and thus lived at the utter end of my academic street. We viewed Fermat's Last Theorem from opposite sides. I found it amusing, and Dodo thought it a challenge.

If you missed that, this fellow Pierre de Fermat proposed a notion about Pythagorean numbers, and a German society of mathematicians offered a prize of 100,000 marks to anybody who would (1) prove, or (2) disprove its validity. Nobody did, but it seemed comical to me that scholars who were still looking for the lowest common denominator would presume to worry about something going in either direction at once, and fully as illusive as the final interger of pi.

Dodo explained to me that I didn't know what I was talking about, and I said that was the nicest thing anybody ever said to me.

Fermat's Last Theorem was never solved until computer machines were perfected, when it was found not to be true, and during World War I the 100,000 marks degenerated to 16 cents. It seemed to me mathematics was somewhat like Doc Rockwell's dog that didn't eat beefsteak. (Doc didn't give him any.)

The importance of Dodo Willard, to me, sums up in a couple of recollections of our student days. While he was less than mediocre on the fiddle, he had attained mediocrity on the ordinary tin whistle, which he called his farmer's piccolo, and had become a member of the college orchestra. He did a solo medley of Civil War tunes during a humorous mise en scene between two sonatas of Mozart.

When the college orchestra went on its annual concert tour, and the boys went to Carnegie Hall on the New York subway, Dodo liked to stand to one side as they squirmed through the turnstiles and fought the crowd with their bass viols, sousaphones, cellos, kettledrums, and assorted unwieldy instruments, and he would wave his tin whistle at them and show how neatly it fit into his breast pocket.

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My finest recollection of Dodo has to do with his final exam, bringing to a close his undergraduate days. It was a one-question examination, devised by Professor Hammond, and it was meant to occupy the student for the full three hours, requiring the application of advanced calculus, hypothetical trig, and all phases of interpolated quadrostatics right up to the Nth power of infinity.

Dodo completed his Q.E.D. in 23 minutes, handed in his blue books, and Professor Hammond, who was monitoring his own exam, naturally assumed Dodo had found the problem beyond his ability and had given up in failure.

Prof. Hammond was mistaken.

Dodo came back to the dormitory and played me three games of cribbage.

He told me of his plans to study law come fall, and what he was going to do that summer. Then we had supper, and since we were both finished with examinations, we turned in for a night's rest before packing the next morning to go home.

However, at 2:30 a.m. there came a tap on Dodo's door, and Dodo found Professor Hammond in the hall with Dodo's blue books in his hand.

The professor apologized for the intrusion at this unseemly hour.

"I was reading your blue books," he told Dodo, "and I'm bewildered until I can't sleep. Will you please show me how you arrived at your solution?"

Dodo, while still in his first blue book, had carelessly interpolated a logarithm, which sent him off on a grievous tactical error. Four books later, realizing his mistake, he deftly reinterpolated, this time with a function that put him back on track, and since things seemed plausible to Dodo, he felt they would be to Prof. Hammond.

A good many of my other college mates are disremembered.

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