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Killian Lecturer Rota Looks Back At Teaching Career

By Zareena Hussain
Staff Reporter

When asked what first interested him in mathematics, Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy Gian-Carlo Rota said, "I wasn't good for anything else."

Rota, too modest to confess to anyone his many achievements, asks everyone who congratulates him on his receipt last spring of the Killian Faculty Achievement Award how they found out. He certainly didn't tell them.

The Killian Award serves to honor the extraordinary professional accomplishments of an MITfaculty member.

Rota came to MITin 1959 and has been here ever since with the exception of two years - 1965 to 1967 - when he was at Rockefeller University. In his time here, he has had a great impact on the MITcommunity.

Rota is "without peer in his commitment to mathematical scholarship, history, and exposition," said Professor of Chemical Engineering George Stephanopoulos, chair of the Killian Committee for 1996-97, when presenting the award at last May's faculty meeting.

Rota has the same respect for MITas the MITcommunity has for him. There is "no phony baloney." He also likes MITbecause "students have more faculty contact that at other schools."

Rota's commitment is to students

An integral part of Rota's commitment to learning is his commitment to the undergraduates he teaches. His most memorable experiences at MIT involve his students.

"I give my undergraduate students unsolved problems in the problem set without telling them they are unsolved. When they solve them I ask them to submit it to a research journal, and they are so surprised," Rota said. "It's a great thing."

So far it has happened seven times.

One of the things that Rota enjoys most is when he is able to help his students understand the concepts he explains in lecture. "It takes a long time, but it's a great satisfaction."

His favorite classesare Differential Equations (18.03) and Probability (18.313). He especially enjoys 18.313 because of the challenge involved in having to present to students more concrete examples of probability, as opposed to abstract equations.

Rota has a great respect for undergraduates at MIT. "MITstudents are better students, so you might as well [teach]," he said.

Anecdotes a part of memories

Rota's impact on the MITcommunity is evident when one sees how many times his often humorous quotes from lecture are highlighted in the World Wide Web pages of former students, or listens to how many times his classroom quips come up in the daily conversation of his students.

Often the little things that Rota says in lecture leave the most lasting impressions. One former student of Rota's, Paul F. Levy '72, now an adjunct professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, noted the lasting impressions he got while taking Calculus II (18.02) with Rota.

"One time Rota said, Look, learning is overcoming your prejudices,'" Levy said. Statements like this have given some of Rota's students lessons that remain with them.

Part of Rota's responsibility as Killian Lecturer is to give a lecture based on his work to the community at large. The date is set for March 5, 1997.

Although Rota is still unsure of what he is going to present at his lecture, he hopes to interweave some real-life anecdotes with the presentation of his work.

"I have to give a lecture people understand. It's not so easy," he said.

Rota noted that one of the problems with mathematics is that it is harder for mathematicians to explain their work to those who are not mathematicians. "Mathematicians can be their own worst enemy," he said. He said that he hopes to avoid this trap when delivering his Killian lecture.

Rota plans to continue to teach and publish indefinitely. "I have no intention of retiring," he said.

Rota has a book coming out this Thanksgiving entitled Indiscrete Thoughts, a book of mathematical gossip published by Birkhauser. He hopes that MITstudents will read it and see some of the similarities between the book and his lectures.