Friday, September 16, 2005

Serge Lang

Serge Lang (78), a great mathematician of our times, passed away this week. I heard the sad news via Peter Woit's blog. Yale Daily News obituary is here.

Lang was a professor at the Yale university for the past 33 years. Before moving to Yale, he was at Columbia for almost fifteen years. Serge Lang was a prolific author. His math publications include about forty math books -- textbooks at various levels and research monographs, and around 150 research papers. Unlike other distinguished mathematicians, Lang was also famous for his forthright views on many different topics, some of which were very controversial. His views on AIDS -- "that a causal link between HIV and AIDS has not been definitively established", for instance. Most of his non mathematical writings are collected in the voluminous book, Challenges, published by Springer. Lang wrote in its introduction:

    ... parts of this book concern several other cases of questionable academic, scientific, or political behavior, in various combinations. All pieces this book reflect my fundamental interest in the area where the academic or scientific world meets the world of journalism and the world of politics. The pieces deal with various questions of responsibility in all these areas. It turns out that the National Academy of Sciences happens to be involved in all of them in some way or another.

    One recurrent problem has been the difficulty I have experienced in getting published. Examples of this difficulty arise throughout. The existing difficulties of getting criticisms of established figures or institutions printed in standard scientific or scholarly journals is one of the fundamental issues dealt with in this book.

Serge Lang was also successful in campaigning against Samuel Huntington's nomination to the National Academy of Sciences. Lang claimed that Huntington "used spurious mathematical reasoning" in his research work to look more authentic. Yale Daily News reports that Lang even had a "Huntington Test" for several of his students in which the students were supposed to comment on passages from Huntington's work to determine whether they could "tell a fact from a hole in the ground"!

Lang never shied away from speaking out. For instance, his article, A Mathematician on the DOD, Government, and Universities, charged that the US Department of Defense regularly use research funding as a means to buy loyalty or to scare and discipline American mathematicians during the Vietnam War. When the American Mathematical Society honored him the Steel Prize in 1999, his response was thus:

    I thank the Council of the AMS and the Selection Committee for the Steele Prize, which I accept. It is of course rewarding to find one's works appreciated by people such as those on the Selection Committee. At the same time, I am very uncomfortable with the situation, because I resigned from the AMS in early 1996, after nearly half a century's membership. On the one hand, I am now uncomfortable with spoiling what could have been an unmitigated happy moment, and on the other hand, I do not want this moment to obscure important events which have occurred in the last two to three years, affecting my relationship with the AMS.

    ... ...

    Torn in various directions, sadly but firmly, I do not want my accepting the Steele Prize to further obscure the history of my recent dealings with the AMS.

Lang, of course, detailed the circumstances which led to his resignation.

If you visit any reasonable library which also has a math collection, and if you bother to have a quick walk near the math shelves, it's hard not to notice Serge Lang's name. In my first week of M.Sc., I saw so many books by a certain Serge Lang that I thought a group of mathematicians wrote under that name. (A prof had told us about Bourbaki in his very first class!) Lang remained very active till the end, researching, lecturing, writing text books, and publishing research papers. I never met him, but I have heard numerous stories that highlight his humour, his diligence, and of course his eccentricities, from friends, colleagues, and teachers. Very recently, perhaps a few days before his death, he lectured at Berkeley, and my blog friend Vishnu was in the audience. Vishnu wrote in his September 10 post that "it was amazing to see the seventy-eight year old Lang talking with great enthusiasm". Vishnu's post also narrates a cute little incident that shows the lighter side of Serge Lang.

    Perhaps no other author has done as much for mathematical exposition at the graduate and research levels, both through timely expositions of developing research topics and through texts with an excellent selection of topics,
says, the AMS Steel Prize citation. I have used a few of his text books. Some of his research works are quite central to my areas of interest. Many of us like his books, a few of us hate his style. But I guess all of us would agree that Lang was one of the 20th century's most prolific and influential mathematicians.

Update (September 25): A Gadfly and Mathematical Theorist, a much delayed nytimes obit (link via e-mail from Ravi):

    ... ...

    Dr. Lang also threw in a whimsical document, "The Three Laws of Sociodynamics," which states, among other things, that "the power structure does what they want, when they want; then they try to find reasons to justify it."

    Dr. Lang started his career as one of the nation's leading thinkers in fundamental mathematics, using aspects of geometry to study the properties of numbers, and evolved into a gifted but challenging teacher.

    Decades of students discovered that if they did not pay attention in class, Dr. Lang would throw chalk. "He would rant and rave in front of his students," Dr. Ribet said. "He would say, 'Our two aims are truth and clarity, and to achieve these I will shout in class.' "


At 10:47 AM, Blogger froginthewell said...

Sad. Also surprising that though he passed away on Monday the world has just got to know about this.

However hard I ( and some others ) find his style, I did learn a decent chunk of my mathematics from his books. And he had results as fundamental as the beautiful Lang's theorem - not so common among too many living mathematicians.

At 11:02 AM, Blogger Sunil said...

I didn't even know he was dead, till i read it right now, here!

Wonder why it wasn't widely reported.........i'm not even a mathematician, but even i've heard of him!

At 5:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right after that lecture I wrote about, they were giving off some of Lang's books, signed by him, through a raffle. Wish they had picked me!

At 11:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel really sad of the bad news and I know that I'm not alone.

In fact, I'm a french student at the university of Strasbourg (France) and in june Mr Lang came to us to give a lecture.

Even if I'm only a student (and a bad one I must confess), I had the opportunity to talk to him.

I only said to him that it was really difficult to find his english book Algebra in mathematical Libraries and immediatly he said that he will send one to me.

Yesterday a teacher from Strasbourg gave me the book that he just received and in the same time he told me about Lang's death...

So today I feel sad because we have lost a great mathemacian and further more a great man. This man makes me feel (I'm too bad to say understand) the beauty of algebra.

If anyone knows where I can find the address of his family to tell my deepest sympathy and thank them for the gift, you can write at

At 10:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect that I am the only person who had Professor Lang wait on the telephone. Early in the 90s our Departmental secretary left me a message saying that Professor Lang wanted me to call him. We never met and I was excited that he knew me to call me! At that time making a long distance call from my office was a little hassle. I went to the secretary and told her that I wanted make a long distance call and gave her the number. I thought that she would inform me when she was making the call. A little after she called me in my office to tell me that Professor Lang was on the phone in her office. I was stunned that I had him waiting on the phone. I think he was a little annoyed with me but his attitude changed right away and he asked me for a reprint of one of my articles.

Later I received an e-mail from one of his students stating that Professor Lang received the reprint I sent him and wanted me to send him other reprints as well. I think Professor Lang immediately had the student e-mail me again telling me that he meant preprints as well as reprints. I will always remember and be appreciative of his interest in my work.

At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anand, is it Ken Ribet that nytimes refers to? A wonderful teacher, he is!

At 9:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sadly I had written a detailed 9 pagesletter to him but did not send it Ias I don't Know himand his e-mai address was not available. I had actually talKed to my student Priya Naik at Yale ( Public administration ) and she told me to send aletter to him on email to her. Als I made late !but alas I Surprisingly I remember that a few months ago I got a dream that Serge lang is no more ! I don't know why but I it may be the same day on which he expired. I shared a lot many simlarities with him especiaaly views on Calculus.His books on analysis are superb and his book Analysis -II, Differentiable manifolds , and appendixes in Linear Algebra are exemplary.

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At 2:59 AM, Blogger Dana Weber said...

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