The calculus of dissolution

Anyone who knows much of anything about the history of mathematics knows the name Cantor. He was one of the math geniuses of all time. Being neither a math genius nor a math competent, I couldn’t tell you precisely what he accomplished, what he was most noted for, what difference he made in the intellectual world.

So I’m talking about a different Cantor, who taught me calculus, who… I barely know what to say. One of the 2 or 3 best teachers I’ve ever been exposed to, and one of the most sad, most riddled people I’ve known.

While looking into the background of my friend Dave Liberman (who died way, way too early), I stumbled over a site listing the prizewinners for best freshman math paper presented at UPenn. Not surprisingly, Dave (first  in his class the year he graduated) had won in 1960. I also noticed that five years previously, that freshman prize had been shared by Robert Cantor. 

In the summer of 1964, at Penn, a year after I’d snuck back from a disastrous term studying truly dumb shit in grad school communications at Stanford, I steamrollered through organic chem, elementary biochemistry and calculus.

That first summer semester, it was my enormous good fortune to have Cantor as grad-student instructor. Scrawny, obviously shy, he stood at the front of the room in rolled-up shirt sleeves, a 3×5 notebook cupped in his hand throughout each session. He wrote equations on the board, copying from the tiny booklet, then asked for student questions, which he answered in specific, evolving detail. If the student remained perplexed, Cantor would provide yet more detail. I never saw him leave a student without a complete, convincing answer to a question.

At the end of his thoroughgoing course, he gave a five-hour final exam – using the exam as yet another vehicle for instruction. The next day, he held an optional meeting to discuss the exam in detail – what it was doing, what it was intended to do – what it taught. At least 90% of the class showed up for the review.

The course was an illuminating educational experience, exactly what learning should be about.

The Penn math department at the time was known for using its grad students like chattel, cleaning up research for the mahoffs who refused to release them to finish their degrees. So, assuming Cantor got his undergrad degree in ’58, he’d been tunneling through the department for at least 6 years by the time I took his course.

Two years later, he left home with a note paper-clipped to his shirt pocket that read, “I am not who I am.” He walked into the Penn math department where he shot two of the profs and himself. He and one of the profs died.

Such things are all too common these days. They weren’t then.

Cantor was not a madman. He was a dedicated, caring, downtrodden human being. Once, while I was working at the Penn bookstore, he stopped in to buy a newspaper. I said Hello. It was like offering a piece of bread to a deer. He barely knew how to respond.

I should at least have asked him how things were going for him. I’m sure it would not have changed any future outcome, but I missed a chance to thoroughly acknowledge a human being I admired, and who probably never fully realized his own worth.

  1. #1 by orphyunk on December 18, 2021 - 10:05 am

    What a sad story.


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