Saturday, October 10, 2009

The passion of Professor Piranian

In one of my many previous lives, I was a math person. I had done well on the SAT's, the University of Michigan gave me some change, and I was plonked into a high level calculus course with four other freshmen who had shown some aptitude for math.

The course was taught by Professor Piranian, a lively man who was interested in everything, but bled mathematics.

After a couple of weeks, I was floundering. It would take me an hour or two to solve a problem, and we had several to solve each week. I did not have that kind of time. (There were Frisbees to catch, philosophies to be debated, beer to drink.)

I went to visit him.

When I walked in, he was sitting behind a massive desk, intently reading. He had some classical music playing on the radio. I came to talk math, and he immediately asks me who the composer was.

I had no idea.

Once he settled down from his absolute consternation that a student of his might be a complete imbecile in matters of real music (he never asked me about the Ramones), we got to my concerns.

I told him I was obviously unqualified for the class (as much as I truly enjoyed his teaching), that it was taking me an hour or two to solve his problems.

He stopped me immediately.
"An hour or two?"
"Um, yes, sir, it takes that long...."

He blew up.
"An hour or two , an hour or two?! You are solving this in AN HOUR? I am not challenging you enough. You should be drinking math, you should be breathing math! You should be...."

This went on for some time. In retrospect, I think he meant well, and had I gotten to know him a little better, I may be teaching high school math now instead of high school biology.

One thing was clear, though--I was never going to be a professor of anything if it meant that kind of monomaniacal passion.

So I quit.

I went on to practice medicine in the projects and eventually teach high school, and John Savoie, one of the 4 students left, became a poet, though he subsidizes his income as a full professor in English. I'd love to know what happened to the other three.

I was going to write about testing metrics today, but in the process learned about Professor Piranian's recent death, and his wonderful life.

I am a madman in the classroom. I think maybe Professor Piranian had something to do with that.

Thank you, Dr. Piranian--I even know who Beethoven is now.

(Hey, he was the Unabomber's professor, once, too--the things you learn on the internet!
Sometimes monomania leads to undesired results.)

(Dr. Piranian's photos are from his website, used with permission.)


Kathryn J said...

What a great story! The lack of monomaniacal passion on my part meant that I knew very early that a PhD in Chemistry was not in the cards for me. You had passion or you would not have been a doctor or a teacher. I am grateful for your diverse interests - it makes this blog a great place to visit.

LOL about the frisbees, beer, and Ramones - they were also major factors in my inability to be a PhD. I am not unhappy with the path I've taken although I never would have predicted it.

Barry Bachenheimer said...

Piggybacking on Kathryn's comment and your column, WHY do we have to give up "fun" pursuits in the pursuit of the terminal degree? Currently pursuing my Ed.D, I refuse to give up my hobbies, my family, or my taste in music. :-)

Sue VanHattum said...

I found this old post of yours through the George Piranian website. I just today learned from that site that he had died, though I suspected he might have headed out by now.

I'm writing a post to thank my old teachers. You had him only 3 years after I did!

At least his passion came through, which is more than I can say for my other math teachers at U of M. I'm tickled that we have GP in common. His passion for math and classical music helped me maintain my own passions, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

I met George Piranian as an incoming freshman in a "special track" within the honors program at the University of Michigan in 1984, just after he'd retired. I had occasional conversations with him for the next fifteen years or so. We would bump into each other someplace on campus, in the rare moments he was not on his bike, and we'd stop and talk about everything, including the state of mathematics education (which was my bread and butter at the time), Beethoven, and George's opinion that I MUST NOT marry anyone with an Anglo-Saxon name because to pair my name with something so prosaic as "Hill" would be an aesthetic crime. (No worries, I won't be doing that!)

The program was designed to put us in the way of some very special professors at Michigan, of which George was the most dearly maniacal. I was never in a classroom of his, but at our last meeting he rummaged around and gave me a great old calculus textbook after I expressed some disappointment with my teachers in that area. Endearingly maniacal. His own passion was rare sustenance to feed my own, as is clear it was to others as well. George is still alive in all of us.

Anonymous said...

George Piranian was a remarkable personality. Upon meeting me (another member of misnamed SHT of 1984) and learning of my admiration for Mann's "The Magic Mountain", George immediately performed an impression of the incoherent Mynheer Peeperkorn.

Years later, when I too first "smelled blood in mathematics", I found that George had won the respect of Kent-State mathematicians like Olaf Stackelberg and Richard Varga for his editing and his character.

Jim Blevins (Uppsala University, Sweden)

Chris R said...

I was a student of his in '82-3 after he came back to teach, in his words "after rehabilitating myself." He was 72.

A truly amazing professor. He challenged us, he pushed the envelope in our thinking, he even called me a 'mensch' at one point (I had no idea what that meant at the time).

He was also the advisor for a girl that I pursued (unsuccessfully), but that also helped me stay in touch with him.

In later years we kept in touch somewhat -- after Graduate School I'd requested his help on mathematical tiling problems and he proceeded to lecture me (fantastic lecture, btw) on the phone about Geometers and approaches of one kind or another.

I never could pin him down on the Axiom of Choice; hopefully someone out there in Internet land could.

His passing was a great loss. I try to use his approach to teaching mathematics with my children and teaching others.

George, we miss you.