Ilya Piatetski-Shapiro, Math Theorist Who Clashed With Soviets, Dies at 79

Today’s New York Times brought the sad news of the death of the mathematician Ilya Piatetski-Shapiro: Ilya Piatetski-Shapiro, Math Theorist Who Clashed With Soviets, Dies at 79 .

This was the first time I had ever seen his name, but I am writing this because of the several concidences:

  • Dr. Shapiro’s obituary appeared the day after that of my friend and colleague Jacob T. Schwartz, 79, Restless Scientist, Dies.
  • Both Dr. Shapiro and Jack were members of the Yale Mathematics Department; Jack at the start of his career, Dr. Shapiro at the end.
  • Both were world-class mathematicians.
  • Both had an association with Russia; Dr. Shapiro by birth, Jack by his many visits and the recognition he brought for Dr. Andre P. Ershov, an eminent Soviet computer scientist whose work would most unlikely be unknown outside Russia were it not for Jack’s writing about the importance of it.
  • Both were tough, very tough, intellectuals.

I consider the last point the most important. If you read Dr. Shapiro’s obituary, you will learn, as did I, that Dr. Shapiro was a tough cookie, as is clear from the first paragraph of his obituary:

Ilya Piatetski-Shapiro, whose outstanding mathematical contributions stretched over a long career despite hardships as a Jew in the Soviet Union and later the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease, died Feb. 21 in Tel Aviv. He was 79.

I have personally known only one Russian I would place in the same group: Andre Ershov.

Ershov was a dedicated Communist. He was a senior member of the IBM Academy of Sciences at a time when to have that rank was to have about the same amount of power as a United States Senator. [1] He was one of the founders of Akademgorodok, “Academic City,” near the city of Novosibirsk, Sibera. It was Russia’s version of Los Alamos, and was created in Siberia to help grow that remote area. (I visited Ershov there in the fall of 1973.)

Ershov also took on as a doctoral student a Jew whom I met during a conference in Moscow in September of 1976. Ershov did this at a time when to do so was to risk the wrath of the authorities, the kind of wrath that the authorities offered in full measure to Dr. Shapiro, yet Ershov had such integrity, and power, that he was able to do so. Though I don’t recall the student’s name, I do recall he was one of the stars of the conference.

Other members in this group include the scientist Andre Sakharov, the author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the activist, Natan Sharansky, the historian Roy Medvedev, and Roy’s brother Zhores, a biologist.

I spoke by phone with one of Jack’s colleagues this morning. I mentioned that I felt that John Markoff, the New York Times reporter who wrote Jack’s obituary, and who interviewed me as he was preparing it, had done a fantastic piece of writing.

The colleague disagreed, saying one had only to compare the two obituaries. He found the one for Jack too austere, that for Dr. Shapiro gave a better sense of the depth of Dr. Shapiro’s character and achievements. He also noted that Jack’s obituary had a photo with a very neutral expression, while that for Dr. Shapiro’s was more favorable. (I see in his evidence of the iron will I know he had. There is a wariness in his eyes.)

When I discussed Jack’s obituary with my wife last night, I said that I had been very impressed by Mr. Markoff’s work. She disagreed, saying she was most troubled by the ending, which is a story about Jack and the famed mathematician John Nash, Jr. (I will write a post about this incident soon.) She felt the story was uncharacteristic of jack. Though the title of Jack’s obituary correctly noted he was a relentless scientist, Jack was not a relentless competitor. He was a very modest man, and I never once heard him boast of any of his many accomplishments.

We have seen the death of two great mathematicians within a month. The world, and especially the world of mathematicians, now mourns their passing.

Ilya Piatetski-Shapiro – May His Memory Be A Blessing.

Note:

1. I once read a novel, though I cannot recall just now the title or the name of the author, about a great gladiator during the height of the Roman Empire. The author suggested that the greatest gladiators, once they had survived their to-the-death battles in the arena from which they had always emerged victorious, then were bestowed with wealth and power comparable to that of a United States Senator.

Whether that is true or false, it would be an interesting experiment to see if eminent Senators could achive the same level of eminence in a series of to-the-death battles…

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One Comment

  1. Posted March 10, 2009 at 17:43 | Permalink | Reply

    Dave,
    Ilya Piatetski-Shapiro was my father and thank you for kind words you wrote about him. I was also very sorry to see on the same day obit for Jack Schwartz. What a coincidence!
    I was Jack’s Research assistant during my first year of grad school at NYU in 1977, and the work I did for Jack was translating work from Ershov group from Russian to English. Jack came up with an elegant math-based computer language SETL (set language) and the group in Akademgorodok in Siberia has done interesting work on SETL. However, SETL was too powerful to be implemented efficiently, and did not spread beyond NYU. Jack’s reputation at NYU was legendary, but he was very modest and very gracious.

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