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There is profit in being a foreign prophet

A prophet, according to the old saying, is without honor in his own country. I've benefited occasionally from the converse. If you go far enough from home, you may get more respect. Or maybe it is just a question of being in the right place at exactly the right time.

I've had a respectable career as a college professor of mathematics and computer science, but a few of my most rewarding experiences seem undeserved. Yes, in a sense, I'd done my homework, but the rewards were pure gifts. I was reminded of one of these instances recently when I attended a conference held at the University of California at Santa Barbara in honor of the 80th birthday of one of my mentors, Morris Newman.

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In 1962 I was a college undergraduate with a summer job, an internship, at the National Bureau of Standards. Another student, Harriet Fell (now a professor at Northeastern University), and I assisted Dr. Newman in some of his research. For example, we did programming to compute tables of some functions he was studying. He was kind enough to include us as coauthors of a published paper that resulted.

By 1965 I was a graduate student. My university required that I be able to read French and German, but my father insisted that I ought to be able to speak them, too. As a result, he partially subsidized my trip to Europe that summer to practice my languages. I spent 12 weeks enrolled in language courses - six weeks in Paris and six in Munich.

While in Paris, I wanted also to do a little mathematics. In some ignorance of how French universities were organized, I went to the Sorbonne and asked directions to a mathematics library. Arriving there, I found it had closed stacks and one had to ask at the counter for the books one wanted. I made my request, in rather halting French, and the man behind the counter looked up and down at me rather disapprovingly.

"This is a library for serious mathematical researchers," he explained, "and is not open to young beginning students."

I certainly was young, and probably by his standards a beginner. But then an older man came and returned several volumes to the counter. And by a freak coincidence, one of those volumes was the journal issue containing the paper of which I was a coauthor - my one professional publication at that time.

I couldn't resist. I reached over, took the volume, flipped it open to the correct page, and pointed to my name. The man behind the counter looked at it, at my name on the book request, blushed, and got me the books I wanted. The timing was so perfect I couldn't have set it up if I had planned to - which I had not.

I still have no idea if I actually belonged in that library, but it solved my problem of library access during that stay in Paris.

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In the early 1980s, I was teaching at what is now the University of Memphis. A very distinguished Hungarian mathematician, Paul Erdos, came to town to lecture. We got along well and wrote several papers together over the next few years.

In 1991 my wife and I were sightseeing in Ukraine (then still the Soviet Union). We were part of an Elderhostel group, spending a week at each of several teachers colleges. We studied some local history and spoke with the local student teachers so they could practice their English and learn a bit more about Americans. One afternoon my wife and I left the group to explore a local university, Odessa Polytechnic.

We found the mathematics department and went into a professor's office to introduce ourselves. What mathematics was he interested in? It was clear from his desk: He was following some lines of research of Paul Erdos. And among the papers on his desk was one I had written with Dr. Erdos. I was suddenly promoted from the category of tourist to the category of visiting dignitary.

It was a difficult time in Ukraine. Prices had recently quadrupled, the start of a hyperinflation that later caused them to rise by a multiple near 1,000. The university as a whole was suffering, as were the faculty. It was two months before the August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and the ensuing dissolution of the Soviet Union. Trouble was in the air. The sudden arrival of a friendly American couple was cause for celebration, and everyone got on the telephone.

That evening the department held a potluck supper, with my wife and me as guests of honor. It was a wonderful chance to talk of many things, and we learned much more about the Soviet Union than we could ever have planned. ("You mean," someone asked, "George was at the lecture this morning? He is the KGB man on the faculty, and I suppose the poor man still has to go to every lecture where a foreigner is present.")

I am not, by most standards, a noted mathematician. I'm never going to win a major prize from either the mathematical societies or the computer societies. But I have had friends who did, and I've been to the dinners afterward. None of them had half as much fun as we did, that night in Odessa.

Doing the work may be needed, but a lot of the rewards come as unexpected, unpredictable gifts.

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