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October 6, 2009

Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

Posted by John Baez

Israel Gelfand died yesterday, at the age of 96.

He played a preeminent role in Russian mathematics for many years. His legendary seminar in Moscow ran for 50 years, and set the pattern for many others, including Sullivan’s seminar at CUNY and Drinfeld’s at Chicago. His name is attached to many mathematical achievements, including:

But this are just the tip of the iceberg! For example, seeing these you might never guess that he helped write a 5-volume work on distribution theory.

Here’s a bit more about Israel Gelfand, taken from a New York Times article written by Marilyn Kochman in 2003:

On the eve of his 90th birthday, Israel M. Gelfand reflected on the essence of mathematical achievement. ”It is not only about aptitude,” he said, sitting in his cozy office on the Busch campus of Rutgers University in Piscataway. ”It is about appetite.”

Dr. Gelfand, a distinguished visiting professor of mathematics at Rutgers, and widely considered to be among the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, has demonstrated a voracious appetite for mathematics and more.

For more than 70 years, he has conducted pioneering research in every branch of mathematics, collaborated with colleagues around the world, guided the doctoral theses of countless students, and established correspondence schools in the Soviet Union and in the United States.

In addition, he founded a mathematics seminar at Moscow State University that met weekly for nearly 50 years and has become a legend among mathematicians.

”Gelfand bridges mathematics in the first half of the 20th century with the 21st century,” said Prof. Alexandre Borovik, who teaches mathematics at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in England. ”Most mathematicians define themselves according to their specialty, for example, a topologist, an algebraist, or a number theorist. But Gelfand has the ability to understand and to speak almost every mathematical language–and there are nearly as many of those as there are human languages.”

Dr. Gelfand, who lives in Highland Park, has made an indelible impact in such areas as functional analysis, representation theory, geometry and integrable systems.

His studies on Banach algebras and infinite-dimensional representations of Lie groups have become standard fare in advanced textbooks, and essential background for further advances in the fields.

Dr. Gelfand, who is 5 feet 6 and has piercing blue eyes, continues to work at an astonishing pace. In the past several years, he has written more than a dozen papers, two scientific texts, and two high school texts.

”I think I am able to work as well as I could 40 or 50 years ago,” said Dr. Gelfand, who attributes this productivity, in part, to a strict vegetarian diet, which he adopted, along with his wife Tatiana, a decade ago.

Dr. Gelfand’s achievements and published work extend beyond mathematics.

In 1958, when he was 45, he became interested in cell biology and neurophysiology. Dr. Gelfand’s entire body of published work encompasses more than 600 papers and books.

”Hiring Gelfand in 1990 was my greatest accomplishment,” said Prof. Felix Browder, who teaches mathematics at Rutgers. He championed Dr. Gelfand’s appointment when he was the vice president of research for Rutgers. (Professor Browder is also a noted mathematician whom President Clinton named a 1999 recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest science and engineering honor.)

By the late 1980’s, the Soviet government relaxed its restrictions on emigration, and Dr. Gelfand, along with myriad others, was able to leave the country. His children also live in the United States: Sergei, a mathematician; Vladimir, a biologist; and Tatiana, a student of psychology and art.

And here’s a bit about his seminar in Moscow, from the same article:

In 1943, Dr. Gelfand established the legendary Mathematics Seminar, which operated independently of the university and was open to everyone. It would produce several generations of talented mathematicians.

”The seminar, held each Monday night on the 14th floor of the grand Moscow University building, was a remarkable and unique phenomenon,” said Prof. Edward Frenkel, who teaches mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley.

He attended Dr. Gelfand’s seminar while a graduate student in Moscow.

”Each week, about 100 mathematicians would attend,” Professor Frenkel said. ”The seminar started at seven and people often stayed until after midnight, without a break. They came to hear what Gelfand had to say. He was sort of an oracle who had a keen ear for the beauty of mathematics. He could see its most interesting and promising directions, and help you feel the unity of mathematics.”

If Dr. Gelfand sensed that seminar participants were not following the presentation, he would intervene.

”As soon as a topic became fashionable, I changed it,” Dr. Gelfand said, explaining that he did not want the students to blindly follow him and his ideas.

”It was during the era of totalitarianism,” he said. ”I hated leadership and didn’t want to be a leader, myself.”

Posted at October 6, 2009 8:00 PM UTC

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Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

Here are some remarks that Todd Trimble posted on another thread:

RIP, Professor Gelfand.

Seeing how he was one of the great giants of twentieth-century mathematics, a living legend really, it may seem a little out of place for me to share a few memories I have of him. I can’t say I knew him well when I was a graduate student at Rutgers, but he left a lasting imprint.

As a teacher he was kind as well as tough and scary. His principle: teach through the simplest examples that would reveal the importance of a concept. The things he tried to teach me back in those days (Coxeter groups, quivers, quasideterminants, among other things) have had a strange way of coming back to me much later, especially as I rediscover them in talking with people like James Dolan, and his manner of sometimes saying to me, “You won’t understand anything of this talk, but it will be very important to you” was often strangely prescient.

His seminar, over which he was in complete control, was a high point of department life. The way he would call on people was frequently unnerving, but his personality and amazing mathematical intuition exerted a fascination which was pretty hard for people to resist.

I believe life in the United States suited him admirably. I’ll always remember and treasure my final memory of him: almost ninety years old, his vigor seemed only to have grown from the time I first knew him; he stood taller and straighter, his bearing more animated than ever.

My condolences to his family, even though they probably won’t be reading these lines.

Posted by: John Baez on October 6, 2009 8:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

Gelfand was the few mathematicians my notoriously prickly thesis advisor Irving Segal really liked and respected. Gelfand came up to visit Segal at MIT now and then, but I just saw him once. I was too terrified to talk to him. He gave a lecture or two on hypergeometric functions. At the time that seemed like fusty old math to me, and I didn’t follow his lectures at all. But someday maybe I’ll get around to understanding his work on hypergeometric functions — and if I do, I suspect I’ll realize how shortsighted I’d been.

Posted by: John Baez on October 6, 2009 8:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

There is one tiny detail about the New York Times article that I wonder about: it reported that Gelfand stood at 5’6”. The thing is: I stand at 5’6”, maybe even a shade under, and my memory is that I loomed over Gelfand when we would talk. (Well, obviously “loomed” is an exaggeration, but I can’t help noticing when I’m taller than another adult male, since it’s not exactly a frequent occurrence.)

The article sees fit to mention his height, and I think I can understand why: there can be something a little bit fascinating about undersized men who are able to exert their domineering will over others. Gelfand certainly dominated in just about any discussion (and here I wonder a little about his self-assessment that he didn’t want to be a leader; he certainly seemed to enjoy being top dog from where I stood; I do accept that he wasn’t into “fads” though). There are other examples of short but otherwise powerful men I can think of: Eilenberg (who was pint-sized next to his student Myles Tierney), and I believe Irving Segal was very tiny as well, right, John?

Posted by: Todd Trimble on October 6, 2009 10:15 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

Yes, in my memories of Irving Segal I wrote:

As a slouching, scruffy grad student who preferred to be barefoot whenever possible, I was somewhat intimidated by his appearance. He was always impeccably dressed in a suit, he wore a goatee shaved short in a no-nonsense sort of way, and he made up for his lack of height by an erect posture and commanding manner.

Posted by: John Baez on October 6, 2009 11:50 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

It was of the least importance for Israel to appear taller than he was. The simple explanation about the height is that when we met he was about 2-3 cm taller than I was. When I had to transfer my height from cm into inches for the drivers license I came up with the closest number 5’4”. Then years later we wrote 5’6” for him in the documents, obviously without any measurements and much thinking.

So this discrepancy was the result of rounding up and using the numbers for the height from many years ago. It is well known that an older person becomes shorter due to the natural bone and mass loss and to the postural changes.

I hope people will stop assuming things and assigning any personal features to Israel because of my bad calculation skills and poor attention when filling the official forms.

Posted by: Tanya on October 27, 2009 3:34 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009


I am deeply sorry if my words caused you to believe that I was making any insinuations or assuming things about Israel Gelfand. I really only assumed that it was a reporter’s error, and the notion that IG would tell a white lie about his height never even entered my mind – from everything I thought I knew about him, that would in fact be a preposterous assumption. At the same time, I was wondering whether my memory was playing tricks on me (maybe he really was as tall as reported) – my memory certainly hasn’t gotten better over the years.

I assure you that I come away only with good memories of the man, indeed remember him with affection, as I hope came through in other reminiscences. Leaving matters of physical height aside, he was clearly a man of towering stature, and I always regarded him with the utmost respect and admiration.

I won’t make assumptions, but if you’re the Tanya I think you are, then it’s wonderful to hear from you. I hope you are doing well.

Posted by: Todd Trimble on October 27, 2009 1:33 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

Yes, Todd, I remember you and was pleasantly surprised to see your name in these posts. I understand better now your comments about Israel.

I know that there is indeed an issue of being short for many men and they try to compensate for this one way or another. I am glad that you understand that this was not the case for Israel- he had better things to think about. Thanks for your nice words about him!

Posted by: Tanya on October 28, 2009 3:50 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

Dear Tanya,

I had not thought of finding you, but I hope this thread helps. I was very sorry indeed when I heard Gelfand had passed away. I have so many fond memories of the time I spent in Rutgers learning from him or working with him. He was truly a great man and a gentleman.

What has happened to the Gelfand school?

I’m due to write an obituary of Gelfand for a German journal. It will be a bit unorthodox—as the man himself—and I’d like to run it through you when it is finished. Please send me an address where I can reach you.

My deepest condolences to you and little Tanya,

Juan Carlos.

Posted by: Juan-Carlos on December 23, 2009 10:04 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

I have just learned from Tanya Alekseyevskaya (the widow of Israel Gelfand, who contributed to this thread) that an in memoriam website is being constructed.

As David pointed out, Gelfand is Yiddish for “elephant”, and the driving theme of the website is to provide sketches of this elephant from a variety of perspectives (in the manner of the old Indian parable of the blind men touching different parts of the elephant, each grasping only a part of the whole).

Anyone who wishes to contribute is encouraged to send materials to Tatiana V. Gelfand (atatiana7 at gmail dot com) or Tatiana I. Gelfand (tatiana.x at gmail dot com).

Posted by: Todd Trimble on December 25, 2009 5:25 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

Seeing terms like Bernstein–Gelfand–Gelfand resolution I’d had the idea that there were two and possibly more mathematically active Gelfands, and was never quite sure what should be attributed to Israel. Perhaps something like the Bernoullis.

I see now that the second Gelfand is Israel’s son Sergei, and that nearly all Gelfand terms are named for the father.

Is Gelfand really Yiddish for elephant? How does someone end up with a surname like that?

Posted by: David Corfield on October 7, 2009 9:25 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

David wrote:

Seeing terms like Bernstein–Gelfand–Gelfand resolution I’d had the idea that there were two and possibly more mathematically active Gelfands…

… while Jim Dolan joked that it was because Gelfand did two-thirds of the work on this result.

I see now that the second Gelfand is Israel’s son Sergei…

Yes, he’s an acquisitions editor for the AMS. Someday I want to give him a book.

Posted by: John Baez on October 7, 2009 4:20 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

nnLab: Israel Gelfand

Posted by: Urs Schreiber on October 7, 2009 10:12 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

I would’ve been nice to give us a hint as to what we would find there cf. the wikipedia or the NYT or … ;-)

Posted by: jim stasheff on October 27, 2009 8:04 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

Ha, a memory which I find amusing.

Gelfand caught me in the hall and said he wanted to talk to me, and told me to follow him to his office. Forthwith he began to quiz me on my knowledge of group representations (which, while never great, was at the time extremely shallow). Being young and naive, I don’t think I appreciated then that here was the God of representation theory in the flesh, drawing out what meager things and guesses I had within me. After a few minutes of me floundering, he took the chalk and began explaining some things, very much in a style that James Dolan would later use also to teach me representation theory, through simple but telling examples and numerology.

He then said he had a problem to give me; would I like to hear it? Sure. He explained the problem (it had to do with bialgebra deformations of group algebras, with a simple case like S 3S_3 as warmup), and then asked me would I like to think about it then and there, or would I like to think about it alone for 30 minutes and report back to him? At this point I try to beg off, telling him I had a calculus lecture to prepare; maybe I could see him again tomorrow? It must have been 3 in the afternoon; the class was at 4:30. He expressed great surprise that it would take me an hour to prepare a calculus lecture; he would show me then and there how to do it in ten minutes. He then demanded to see my calculus book (which I had with me).

Now, there was no way that I was going to have the great Gelfand prepare my calculus lecture, and seeing that he wasn’t going to give in, I told him, yes, you’re absolutely right sir, I don’t need an hour to prepare for my calculus class. So I was stuck, I had to think about this bialgebra problem now, and so I went for his 30 minute option. The thirty minutes flew by without my getting anywhere; there was no help for it, I had to trudge back to his office to take a beating from the master.

So I began at the blackboard, helpless; he opened the window, and with the wind rattling papers on his desk and me saying heaven knows what, I see him staring into space and shaking his head. He’s finally had enough, and begins speaking to me now, essentially having me take dictation from him on a possible way to think about the problem. I think he was trying to be encouraging in his way, and told me a little about his son Sergei who was thinking about similar problems, and how Sergei was somewhat pessimistic about them but that it was important to keep a positive attitude. Maybe he liked that in young Americans, their positive attitudes and fresh naivete about problems.

So that was Israel Gelfand. I heard many similar stories of how he treated young people, fellow graduate students like me. I think he was much tougher on his Russian students; in his class all he had to do is glance at some hapless young Russian, and the fellow would spring to his feet and take the chalk and stand at the blackboard without a word spoken, awaiting the master’s instructions, even though it was sure to result in some embarrassment for the guy.

Posted by: Todd Trimble on October 7, 2009 2:18 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

That’s a nice story. I particularly like the part at the beginning where he simply plucks you from the hall.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on October 7, 2009 4:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

I attended his seminar at Rutgers only once, when Maxim was scheduled to talk. As I recall, Maxim was late so some hapless Russian grad student was asked to fill in. As he floundered, Gel’fand turned to me and asked me to explain what an operad was. When I got to the intertwining of the symmetries, I made the mistake of referring to the wreath product, which the master did not appreciate. Fortunately Maxim arrived at that point.

Henry Whitehead’s seminar was a gentler version, but occasionally he too would interrupt and insist on getting things straight. E.g. Michael Barrat was lecturing and Henry questioned whether Michael’s hypothesis was sufficient. Michael wanted to move ahead so strengthened his hypothesis, which quieted Henry for a while until he interrupted again to insist ‘we’ must determine if the original was sufficient.

Posted by: jim stasheff on October 14, 2009 1:47 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

Gelfand’s treatise on generalized functions
is actually a six-volume work.
Here is the MathSciNet review of the 6th volume:

Posted by: Dmitri Pavlov on October 7, 2009 5:40 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Israel Gelfand, Sept. 2nd 1913 – Oct. 5th 2009

There’s an obituary of Gelfand in the New York Times. It includes this homespun Russian wisdom from Gelfand:

You can explain fractions even to heavy drinkers. If you ask them, ‘Which is larger, 2/3 or 3/5?’ it is likely they will not know. But if you ask, ‘Which is better, two bottles of vodka for three people, or three bottles of vodka for five people?’ they will answer you immediately. They will say two for three, of course.

Posted by: John Baez on October 14, 2009 2:27 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Another great man gone: Vladimir Arnold (1937-2010)

Vladimir Arnold died today in Paris, France.

Posted by: Researcher on June 3, 2010 7:21 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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