Skip to main content

An introduction by Eugene Dynkin 

            For more than a half of century, I recorded conversations with many mathematicians.  First, I recorded an interview with Harald Cramér during his visit to Moscow in 1955. Informal contacts with Western colleagues were impossible during the Stalin era. We were excited by the chance of a contact with a famous Swedish mathematician whose contribution to probability theory and statistics we knew very well. I tape recorded his talk on the history of mathematics in Scandinavia and his recitation, by my request, of the Swedish national anthem.

            The next opportunity came in 1966 at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Moscow. This was the first Congress I was able to attend. At International Congresses in Stockholm, Nice and Vancouver, my invited addresses were delivered at my request by colleagues because, like most Soviet mathematicians, I was not permitted to travel to the Western countries. However, I was able to record a few conversations with foreigners in Moscow and in Poland (where I visited on two private invitations).

 After my emigration from the Soviet Union in 1976, I interviewed many mathematicians around the world. However, my contacts with friends and colleagues in the USSR were severed, and the Russian part of my collection was restricted to conversations with émigrés. This changed with Gorbachev’s perestroika. In 1989 I visited Moscow on an exchange program between the National Academy of Sciences of the USA and its Soviet counterpart. This was an exciting time when people liberated from a heavy pressure of the regime were ready to discuss openly all topics. With the end of the Cold War, contacts flourished during our numerous meetings in Russia, the USA, and other countries. Many of my former students became faculty members at American Universities.

 The majority of the interviewees work in probability theory and related fields. This is the part of mathematics that I concentrated on during the majority of my career. A substantial portion of the recording was done at conferences and workshops in this area. Mostly we talked in my hotel room or in my house when people visited Cornell University. In a few cases, recording was done in a restaurant, in a car, and even in a boat.

         Typically I asked my interlocutors about their family history, their first steps in mathematics, about their school and university years, teachers and colleagues, and their research. A number of distinguished mathematicians talked about their students, their seminars, and the history of mathematics in their countries. We discussed with my Russian friends the situation in the USSR after my departure, and specifically, the problems of those who wanted to emigrate.

            After coming to the West, I was especially interested in educational systems in various countries. Among other subjects of conversation, there were the history of probability theory at important international centers (including Cornell University) and stories about famous mathematicians such as Gelfand and Kolmogorov, Doob and Feller, Hardy and Ramanujan, Neyman and Pearson. I also recorded some music performed by interviewees. The Collection contains a few interviews with economists, physicists, and biologists. Some of my interviews were with graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. Now many of them are well established members of the mathematical community.

         Originally the recordings were not intended for circulation outside of a small group of people. Recently some colleagues of mine suggested that the recordings might be of interest for a wider public, especially for young scholars and possibly, for future historians of mathematics. The decision to preserve the collection of interviews and to make them available on the web was supported by the Cornell University Library. The permission of the interviewees was requested before uploading, and in a few cases, a minor portion of a recording was excluded at their request.

       All interviews are in English or Russian. Through the American Mathematical Society, some funds were made available for the translation of the Russian-language so that it would be accessible to the international community. An English transcription of the highlights for a part of interviews is provided, and this part should be gradually expanded. In addition, there are footnotes to help readers who are not familiar with the specifics of the educational system and/or life in the former Soviet Union.

The site also contains photographs of the interviewees at various stages of their careers. The main sources are:  (a) the private collection of Eugene Dynkin, (b) the Oberwolfach photo collection, and (c) photos provided by interviewees. In addition, there are a few photos of distinguished late mathematicians discussed in a number of interviews. Biographical data are presented for them and for all interviewees.


 Information about academic degrees 

For information about academic degrees as they are referenced in this collection, please visit the academic degrees page. A listing of Russian universities and research institutes is also provided.

 

Information about copyright and permissions

Most of the materials on this site are made available with the permission of the rights owners.  Despite extensive research, the Library has been unable to identify all possible rights holders in these interviews. Thus, some of the material provided here online is made available under an assertion of fair use (17 U.S.C. 107).   As was made clear to the interviewees at the time of the recording, the collection is provided strictly for noncommercial educational and research purposes.  Responsibility for making an independent legal assessment and independently securing any necessary permissions rests with persons desiring to use particular items in the context of the intended use. Outside of gaining necessary permissions, use of the material should be cited as: The Eugene Dynkin Collection, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University. Additionally the library would appreciate notification of use of these materials, this can be done by e-mail to rareref@cornell.edu .

Some photographs on this site have been obtained through arrangement with the Archives of the Mathematisches Forschungsinstitut Oberwolfach, http://www.mfo.de/library and are cited as such. Any subsequent use of these photos requires permission from the M.F.O.. The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections extends our thanks to the M.F.O. for use of their photos.

In many cases higher resolution versions of the interviews presented on the site are availible offline. Acess to these can be made upon request.

Help with this site

While the site as it stands is an amazing resource for scholars researching the history of mathematics, we are looking to further enrich the site. You can assist in this in the following ways:

  • You can add commentary, anecdotes, photos or other historical notes regarding the interviewees.
  • You can listen to a file and can write down highlights, names, or other key points mentioned in the file. We will add this information to the site for future researchers.
  • You can assist us in transcribing or translating the interviews. We have been able to provide some English transcriptions and translations of some Russian interviews. We want to eventually have full transcripts of every interview.

Contact us if you would like to help by e-mail at rareref@cornell.edu or by phone at 607-255-3530.

Special thanks

Without the work of Eugene Dynkin, who spent over half a century pursuing these oral histories, this resource would not be possible. He had the insight to activley pursue the documentation of history and a desire to make his collection useful to the entire mathmatics community by placing it online. Staff in the Cornell University Library who worked on this project are thankful to have had the pleasure of working with him.

Project Team:

  • Jenn Colt-Demaree
  • Evan Fay Earle
  • Anthony McNicoll
  • Steven Rockey
  • Steve Rokitka
  • David Ruddy
  • Natalie Sheridan

Contact Us

If you want to correct content, add content, report a bug, or provide feedback the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections welcomes your comments and questions at rareref@cornell.edu or by phone at 607-255-3530.