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Tag: Petard

Princeton’s own Bourbaki

In the first half of 1937, Andre Weil visited Princeton and introduced some of the postdocs present (notably Ralph Boas, John Tukey, and Frank Smithies) to Poldavian lore and Bourbaki’s early work.

In 1935, Bourbaki succeeded (via father Cartan) to get his paper “Sur un théorème de Carathéodory et la mesure dans les espaces topologiques” published in the Comptes Rendus des Séances Hebdomadaires de l’Académie des Sciences.

Inspired by this, the Princeton gang decided to try to get a compilation of their mathematical ways to catch a lion in the American Mathematical Monthly, under the pseudonym H. Petard, and accompanied by a cover letter signed by another pseudonym, E. S. Pondiczery.

By the time the paper “A contribution to the mathematical theory of big game hunting” appeared, Boas and Smithies were in cambridge pursuing their postdoc work, and Boas reported back to Tukey: “Pétard’s paper is attracting attention here,” generating “subdued chuckles … in the Philosophical Library.”

On the left, Ralph Boas in ‘official’ Pondiczery outfit – Photo Credit.

The acknowledgment of the paper is in true Bourbaki-canular style.

The author desires to acknowledge his indebtedness to the Trivial Club of St. John’s College, Cambridge, England; to the M.I.T. chapter of the Society for Useless Research; to the F. o. P., of Princeton University; and to numerous individual contributors, known and unknown, conscious and unconscious.

The Trivial Club of St. John’s College probably refers to the Adams Society, the St. John’s College mathematics society. Frank Smithies graduated from St. John’s in 1933, and began research on integral equations with Hardy. After his Ph. D., and on a Carnegie Fellowship and a St John’s College studentship, Smithies then spent two years at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, before returning back ‘home’.

In the previous post, I assumed that Weil’s visit to Cambridge was linked to Trinity College. This should probably have been St. John’s College, his contact there being (apart from Smithies) Max Newman, a fellow of St. John’s. There are two letters from Weil (summer 1939, and summer 1940) in the Max Newman digital library.

The Eagle Scanning Project is the online digital archive of The Eagle, the Journal of St. John’s College. Last time I wanted to find out what was going on, mathematically, in Cambridge in the spring of 1939. Now I know I just had to peruse the Easter 1939 and Michaelmas 1939 volumes of the Eagle, focussing on the reports of the Adams Society.

In the period Andre Weil was staying in Cambridge, they had a Society Dinner in the Music Room on March 9th, a talk about calculating machines (with demonstration!) on April 27th, and the Annual Business Meeting on May 11th, just two days before their punting trip to Grantchester,

The M.I.T. chapter of the Society for Useless Research is a different matter. The ‘Useless Research’ no doubt refers to Extrasensory Perception, or ESP. Pondiczery’s initials E. S. were chosen with a future pun in mind, as Tukey said in a later interview:

“Well, the hope was that at some point Ersatz Stanislaus Pondiczery at the Royal Institute of Poldavia was going to be able to sign something ESP RIP.”

What was the Princeton connection to ESP research?

Well, Joseph Banks Rhine conducted experiments at Duke University in the early 1930s on ESP using Zener cards. Amongst his test-persons was Hubert Pearce, who scored an overall 40% success rate, whereas chance would have been 20%.

Pearce and Joseph Banks Rhine (1932) – Photo Credit

In 1936, W. S. Cox tried to repeat Rhine’s experiment at Princeton University but failed. Cox concluded “There is no evidence of extrasensory perception either in the ‘average man’ or of the group investigated or in any particular individual of that group. The discrepancy between these results and those obtained by Rhine is due either to uncontrollable factors in experimental procedure or to the difference in the subjects.”

As to the ‘MIT chapter of the society for useless research’, a chapter usually refers to a fraternity at a University, but I couldn’t find a single one on the list of MIT fraternities involved in ESP, now or back in the late 1930s.

However, to my surprise I found that there is a MIT Archive of Useless Research, six boxes full of amazing books, pamphlets and other assorted ‘literature’ compiled between 1900 and 1940.

The Albert G. Ingalls pseudoscience collection (its official name) comprises collections of books and pamphlets assembled by Albert G. Ingalls while associate editor of Scientific American, and given to the MIT Libraries in 1940. Much of the material rejects contemporary theories of physical sciences, particularly theoretical and planetary physics; a smaller portion builds upon contemporary science and explores hypotheses not yet accepted.

I don’t know whether any ESP research is included in the collection, nor whether Boas and Tukey were aware of its existence in 1938, but it sure makes a good story.

The final riddle, the F. o. P., of Princeton University is an easy one. Of course, this refers to the “Friends of Pondiczery”, the circle of people in Princeton who knew of the existence of their very own Bourbaki.

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the Bourbaki code revisited

The fictitious life of Nicolas Bourbaki remains a source of fascination to some.

A few weeks ago, Michael Barany wrote an article for the JStor Daily The mathematical pranksters behind Nicolas Bourbaki.

Here’s one of the iconic early Bourbaki pictures, taken at the Dieulefit-meeting in 1938. More than a decade ago I discovered the exact location of that meeting in the post Bourbaki and the miracle of silence.

Bourbaki at Beauvallon 1938 – Photo Credit

That post was one of a series on the pre-war years of Bourbaki, and the riddles contained in the invitation card of the Betti Bourbaki-Hector Petard wedding that several mathematicians in Cambridge, Princeton and Paris received in the spring of 1939.

A year ago, The Ferret made the nice YouTube clip “Bourbaki – a Tale of Mathematics, Lions and Espionage”, which gives a quick introduction to Bourbaki and the people mentioned in the wedding invitation.

This vacation period may be a good opportunity to revisit some of my older posts on this subject, and add newer material I discovered since then.

For this reason, I’ve added a new category, tBC for ‘the Bourbaki Code’, and added the old posts to it.

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16 ways to capture a lion (in 1938)

A classic among mathematical jokes is the paper in the August/September 1938 issue of the American Mathematical Monthly “A contribution to the mathematical theory of big game hunting” by one Hector Petard of Princeton who would marry, one year later, Nicolas Bourbaki’s daughter Betti.


There are two main sources of information on the story behind this paper. There are Frank Smithies’ “Reminiscences of Ralph Boas” in the book Lion Hunting & Other Mathematical Pursuits and the transcript of an interview with John Tukey and Albert Tucker at Princeton University on 11 April 1984, part of the oral-history project on the Princeton mathematics community in the 1930s.

Smithies recalls being part of a lively group of people in Princeton during the academic year 1937/38 including Arthur Brown, Ralph Traber, Lyman Spitzer, Hugh Dowker, John Olmsted, Henry Walman, George Barnard, John Tukey, Mort Kanner (a physicist), Dick Jameson (a linguist) and Ralph Boas. Smithies writes:

“At some time that winter we were told about the mathematical methods for lion-hunting that have been devised in Gottingen, and several of us came up with new ones; who invented which method is now lost to memory. Ralph (Boas) and I decided to write up all the methods known to us, with a view to publication, conforming as closely as we could to the usual style of a mathematical paper. We choose H. Petard as a pseudonym (“the engineer, hoist with his own petard”; Hamlet, Act III, Scene IV), and sent the paper to the Americal Mathematical Monthly, over the signature of E. S. Pondiczery.”

Pondiczery was Princeton’s answer to Nicolas Bourbaki, and in the interview John Tukey recalls from (sometimes failing) memory:

“Well, the hope was that at some point Ersatz Stanislaus Pondiczery at the Royal Institute of Poldavia was going to be able to sign something ESP RIP. Then there’s the wedding invitation done by the Bourbakis. It was for the marriage of Betti Bourbaki and Pondiczery. It was a formal wedding invitation with a long Latin sentence, most of which was mathematical jokes, three quarters of which you could probably decipher. Pondiczery even wrote a paper under a pseudonym, namely “The Mathematical Theory of Big Game Hunting” by H. Petard, which appeared in the Monthly. There were also a few other papers by Pondiczery.”

Andrew Tucker then tells the story of the paper’s acceptance:

“Moulton, the editor of the Monthly at that time, wrote to me saying that he had this paper and the envelope was postmarked Princeton and he assumed that it was done by some people in math at Princeton. He said he would very much like to publish the paper, but there was a firm policy against publishing anything anonymous. He asked if I, or somebody else that he knew and could depend on, would tell him that the authorship would be revealed if for any reason it became legally necessary. I did not know precisely who they were, but I knew that John [Tukey] was one of them. He seemed to be in the thick of such things. John agreed that I could accept Moulton’s terms. I sent a letter with this assurance to Moulton and he went ahead and published it.”

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