Quotations by Paul Halmos


I remember one occasion when I tried to add a little seasoning to a review, but I wasn't allowed to. The paper was by Dorothy Maharam, and it was a perfectly sound contribution to abstract measure theory. The domains of the underlying measures were not sets but elements of more general Boolean algebras, and their range consisted not of positive numbers but of certain abstract equivalence classes. My proposed first sentence was: "The author discusses valueless measures in pointless spaces."
I want to be a Mathematician, (Washington 1985).

Mathematics is not a deductive science -- that's a cliche. When you try to prove a theorem, you don't just list the hypotheses, and then start to reason. What you do is trial and error, experimentation, guesswork.
I want to be a Mathematician, (Washington 1985).

... the student skit at Christmas contained a plaintive line: "Give us Master's exams that our faculty can pass, or give us a faculty that can pass our Master's exams."
I want to be a Mathematician, (Washington 1985).

...the source of all great mathematics is the special case, the concrete example. It is frequent in mathematics that every instance of a concept of seemingly great generality is in essence the same as a small and concrete special case.
I want to be a Mathematician, (Washington 1985).

The joy of suddenly learning a former secret and the joy of suddenly discovering a hitherto unknown truth are the same to me -- both have the flash of enlightenment, the almost incredibly enhanced vision, and the ecstasy and euphoria of released tension.
I want to be a Mathematician, (Washington 1985).

Don't just read it; fight it! Ask your own questions, look for your own examples, discover your own proofs. Is the hypothesis necessary? Is the converse true? What happens in the classical special case? What about the degenerate cases? Where does the proof use the hypothesis?
I want to be a Mathematician, (Washington 1985).

To be a scholar of mathematics you must be born with talent, insight, concentration, taste, luck, drive and the ability to visualize and guess.
I want to be a Mathematician, (Washington 1985).

When a student comes and asks, "Should I become a mathematician?" the answer should be no. If you have to ask, you shouldn't even ask.

Feller was an ebullient man, who would rather be wrong than undecided.

The library is the mathematician's laboratory.

The mathematical fraternity is a little like a self-perpetuating priesthood. The mathematicians of today teach the mathematicians of tomorrow and, in effect, decide whom to admit to the priesthood.

You are allowed to lie a little, but you must never mislead.

Computers are important, but not to mathematics.

Applied mathematics will always need pure mathematics just as anteaters will always need ants.

The heart of mathematics is its problems.

It saddens me that educated people don't even know that my subject exists.

I'd be glad to have written this book, and the next few times I talk to audiences I shall happily steal material from it.
Quoted in D MacHale, Comic Sections (Dublin 1993)

A clever graduate student could teach Fourier something new, but surely no one claims that he could teach Archimedes to reason better.

A good stack of examples, as large as possible, is indispensable for a thorough understanding of any concept, and when I want to learn something new, I make it my first job to build one.

More quotes are available at this link


JOC/EFR February 2006

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