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Gian-Carlo Rota

Internationally recognized mathematician and beloved professor, Gian-Carlo Rota died last weekend, apparently in his sleep. He was 66 years old.

Rota was found Monday afternoon after he failed to arrive in Philadelphia Sunday afternoon, where he was to give a three-part lecture series at Temple University earlier this week.

The cause of death was ruled as artherosclerotic cardiac disease by the Middlesex County Medical Examiner.

Rota held appointments at MIT as professor both of applied mathematics and philosophy, the only MIT professor in history to do so. He taught several courses in both fields.

As a mathematician, Rota helped lay the foundations for modern combinatorics and develop the field into a respected discipline within mathematics.

“In the 1960s, combinatorics was not a very respected subject,” said Professor of Mathematics Richard P. Stanley, who was a student of Rota and has himself made significant contributions to the field. “Professor Rota had the idea that this subject needed to be put on a solid foundation.”

Rota published several seminal papers in the field, including “On the foundations of Combinatorial Theory 1. Theory of Mobius functions.”

“That one paper inspired many people.” Stanley said.

“[Rota] said there was a structure called ‘posets’ (partially-ordered sets)” and that these posets are the “critical structure” across all fields in mathematics and deserved to be studied separately, said Assistant Professor of Mathematics Sara C. Billey ’90, who took several of Rota’s courses as an undergraduate.

Rota was also a philosopher working in the 20th century continental tradition of phenomenology. His most recent book Indiscrete Thoughts, published by Birkhauser has been nominated by the 1999 Edwin Goodwin Ballard Book Prize in phenomenology presented by the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.

A great teacher

At MIT, however, Rota is probably best known as a great teacher.

In addition to being an engaging and witty speaker, Rota “really made you feel he was interested in you learning what he had to say,” Stanley said.

Rota taught Probability (18.313), which many students credit as to having encouraged them continue in the field of mathematics.

“He introduced you to probability by telling you about the open problems in the field,” Billey, who took the course while an undergraduate at MIT and later served as course administrator, said. “This was the first time I had heard of an open problem in math.”

Rota would also occasionally give students unsolved problems in the problem set without telling students. “When they solve them I ask them to submit it to a research journal, and they are so surprised,” Rota said in a 1996 interview with The Tech. “It’s a great thing.”

“He always seemed to have so much fun teaching. He always savored the experience,” said Jeffrey A. Bowers G who also took 18.313.

Rota also taught Differential Equations (18.03). Sporting three pairs of eyeglasses -- one for the chalkboard, one for his notes and one to look out to those seated in the lecture hall -- he interspersed his lecture with witticisms, sips from the can of Coke he always had at his side, and the awarding of Hershey bars to students who asked pointed questions.

“He was a truly inspirational professor and person,” said Jeffrey C. Gore, who sat in on Rota’s 18.03 lectures and took 18.313.

Louis J. Nervegna ’99, who also took 18.03 and later worked with Rota in compiling 18.03 lecture notes, said, “He was a fantastically warm and friendly man, always interested in the day to day concerns of his undergraduate students... whom he very much respected. He made it a priority to start any sort of meeting with a long drawn out hello followed by a neighborly chat before ever getting down to any business. He was generous with his time and always available to give his professional advice.”

Rota had been adviser to at least 44 graduate students and many undergraduates throughout his career.

Rota earned recognition for work

Inspiring as a human being, Rota was no less a force in academia. Highlights of his five-page CV include graduating summa cum laude from Princeton in 1953, at least a dozen visiting positions around the world, and a full page of honors awarded to him for his contributions to mathematics and philosophy.

Rota joined the faculty at MIT in 1959 after a short stint as an instructor at Harvard University. He was first a member of the Department of Mathematics; the word philosophy was added to his title in 1972.

In his time at MIT, Rota garnered many academic honors. In 1998, he was named the Norbert Weiner Professor of Mathematics. In 1996, he received the James R. Killian Faculty Achievement Award which recognizes extraordinary professional accomplishments and service to MIT. He won the Steele Prize of the AMS in 1988 and the Medal for Distinguished Service from the National Security Agency in 1992.

In addition to his professorships at MIT, Rota held four honorary degrees, from the University of Strasbourg, France (1984); the University L’Aquila, Italy (1990); the University of Bologna, Italy (1996); and Brooklyn Polytechnical University (1997).

He was also a consultant to the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory since 1966, for the Rand Corporation from 1966-71 and for the Brookhaven National Laboratory from 1969-1973.

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1982, was vice president of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) from 1995-97 and was a member of numerous other mathematical and philosophical organizations.

Rota was also the invited presenter at the 1998 American Mathematical Society (AMS) Colloquium Lectures, a series of three lectures of increasing complexity presented each year by one of the world's most eminent mathematicians. He was to have presented three lectures -- the Groswald Memorial Lectures -- at Temple University in Philadelphia last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Rota a prolific author

He was author or coauthor of seven books and founding editor of three journals: Journal of Combinatorial Theory (1966), Advances in Mathematics (1967) and Advances in Applied Mathematics (1979), as well as founding editor of several book series, including Mathematicians of Our Time (MIT Press); Contemporary Mathematician (BirkhÄuser Boston) and Encyclopedia of Mathematics (Cambridge University Press); and served on the editorial boards of many other journals. He had published close to 200 papers in mathematics or philosophy, and more than 500 short book reviews.

Rota had prominent heritage

Dr. Rota was born on April 27, 1932 to a prominent family in Vigevano, Italy. Many of his family members had achieved prominence in their fields; his uncle by marriage, Fliano, wrote scripts for Federico Fellini’s films, including La Dolce Vita; his father, Giovanni Rota, was a civil engineer and architect who specialized in anti-earthquake structures.

Dr. Rota was educated in Italy until 1945, when his family was forced to leave Vigevano to escape the fascist regime under Mussolini. Giovanni Rota was known to be anti-fascist and had been listed on Mussolini’s death list. He took his family to hide for a time in Northern Italy before crossing the border into Switzerland and later moving to Ecuador, where Dr. Rota completed high school. Gian-Carlo Rota’s sister, Ester Rota Gasperoni, retells the story of their family’s escape in two books, Orage sur le Lac (Rainstorm on the Lake) (L’Ecole des Loisirs, 1995) and L’arbre des Capulies (The Cherry Tree, 1996).

Dr. Rota, who was fluent in English, Italian, Spanish and French, and could read German and Latin, came to the United States in 1950. He received the BA summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1953, the MA from Yale University in 1954 and the PhD, also from Yale, in 1956, all in mathematics. He married Teresa RondÓn in 1956; they divorced in 1980.

He is survived by his sister, Ester Rota Gasperoni; a nephew, Franco Gasperoni; and a niece, Laura Gasperoni Patanella, all of Paris; and an aunt, Rosetta Fliano, of Switzerland.

Burial of the ashes will be in Vigevano, Italy. A public memorial service is being planned at MIT for Friday, April 30. A separate memorial service is also being planned by students of Rota.