Polish Mathematicians and Their Scottish Book

Genius Book

Genius Book

Stefan Banach, Stanisław Mazur, Hugo Steinhaus and Stanisław Ulam are legends in the world of mathematics. Markedly different in their temperaments and views, they found common ground in mathematical thinking. They met by chance when Steinhaus, walking in Planty park in Kraków, accidentally heard someone discussing the Lebesgue measure, then known to very few. That someone was Banach, whom Steinhaus later considered as his own greatest mathematical discovery. What was to go down in history as the Lwów School of Mathematics started off as get-togethers of university lecturers at the Scottish Café in Lwów (now Lviv) in the 1930s. In the heat of solving mathematical problems they scribbled their calculations in indelible pencil on table tops. The café owner would then cover the table with a cloth and cleaners had strict instructions not to scrub it away under any circumstances. In the mid-1935 Banach’s wife brought a chequered notebook to the café for the mathematicians to write in, which they did for almost six years. 193 problems, each with its own number, date, author’s name and the award funded by the author for solving it, were written down in the Scottish Book, as it came to be known after the venue. Some remain unsolved to this day. After the war Ulam translated the Scottish Book into English and sent 300 copies to eminent mathematicians in the world. It caused a sensation. However, that was only a part of the story of those formidable minds and colourful characters living in turbulent times. Mariusz Urbanek describes a broader picture in his book “Geniuses. The Lwów School of Mathematics”. Language aficionados can savour anecdotes in the book illustrating the opinions the mathematicians, mostly polyglots, had on the subject. Banach was convinced that whereas mathematics was too sharp a tool to be given to children, coming to grips with Latin syntax was a perfect method to attune young minds to logical thinking. Mazur once asked a gifted student to write and present in a fortnight a paper based on German sources. The student owned up to not knowing German, which made Mazur magnanimously extend the deadline for the assignment to three weeks. He considered seven days sufficient for the clever mathematician to grasp enough of the language to read in it on his field. Steinhaus was known for the attention he paid to good Polish. This was reflected in his ingenious aphorisms and repartees, which occasionally bordered on annoyingly fossilised purism.
“Genialni. Lwowska szkoła matematyczna” by Mariusz Urbanek

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