Nov. 8, 2011

Library digitizes interviews with international mathematicians

Cornell University Library has acquired a collection of interviews with mathematicians that Eugene Dynkin, Cornell's A.R. Bullis Professor of Mathematics Emeritus, recorded over half a century. His subjects include mathematicians in the United States, Canada, France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, India and Soviet Russia.

Dynkin worked with the library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) and Digital Scholarship Services to organize and digitize his conversations, many with Russian émigrés during the Cold War and former Russian colleagues after the Cold War; they are available online

The interviews serve as a rich source of information not only about mathematics but also about history, providing insight into academic life under the repressive Soviet regime, for example. The collection contains nearly 150 audio and video recordings, plus photographs and biographical information.

"Professor Dynkin made extremely important contributions to mathematics, starting at a very young age and in a wide range of different areas," said Laurent Saloff-Coste, chair of mathematics. "The collection of Dynkin's interviews is probably unique in all of the sciences and unlikely to be ever replicated."

Dynkin, born in Leningrad in 1924, earned a Ph.D. in 1948 from Moscow State University, where he taught for many years. Informal contact with Western colleagues was impossible during the Stalin era.

"Western mathematical journals in the library were stamped 'Restricted Access. Only for Official Use,'" he said. "Even after Stalin's death, like most Soviet mathematicians, I was not permitted to travel to Western countries. However, I was able to record a few conversations with foreign visitors to Moscow."

Dynkin and his wife immigrated to the United States in 1976. At Soviet customs, he said, the authorities examined their belongings for two days, checking "every page of every book," because taking abroad any manuscript or audio recording required approval. Dynkin transferred his interviews from cassettes to small reels and left them with friends, who later gave them to traveling American or Canadian colleagues to take to Dynkin in Ithaca, where Dynkin had continued interviewing mathematicians.

The interviews cover family histories, colleagues and research. Most of the interviews were taped in Dynkin's home or in hotel rooms at conferences, but in a few cases, he recorded in restaurants, cars and even a rowboat. Although mathematics is the focus of most of the interviews, a few contain mathematicians singing folksongs, performing operatic arias and playing musical instruments.

"My original intention was simply to digitize. ... I wanted [the collection] to be preserved, and I planned to deposit it at the Mathematics Library," Dynkin said. But at math library head Steven Rockey's suggestion, Dynkin agreed to put the collection online.

Through the American Mathematical Society, some funds were made available for the translation of the Russian, but many more transcripts need to be completed before the site can assemble a complete English-language archive.

RMC is seeking assistance to continue making the collection accessible to researchers. Anyone who listens to the interviews can help by submitting lists of the topics they cover to or contact RMC online

"We're thrilled to be able to put this valuable collection online for the world to see, and we hope that others will help us continue to make it more complete and accessible," said University Archivist Elaine Engst. "First-person oral histories ... do a wonderful job of personalizing history for future generations of students and scholars."

Gwen Glazer is the staff writer for Cornell University Library.