Thursday, March 11, 2010

Enigmas of Chance

I have been reading Mark Kac' book, Enigmas of Chance: An Autobiography. Kac was a very good mathematician who spent most of his career at Cornell and Rockefeller Universities. The book is surprisingly fun, since he had a great sense of humor. The math is suggestive of what he did, and not that hard to understand.

Kac (pronouced Katz with an "ahh" like "say ahh") was an expert in statistics and probability theory who actually used them in his daily life.

There are lots of Mark Kac stories. I have one. I had the great pleasure of working with him the summer I got out of grad school. (He was exceptionally generous with a young colleague!)

When Kac arrived in Los Angeles a colleague who had been his graduate student and our boss went to pick Kac up at the airport. For some reason they were late. Kac had left by the time they arrived to pick him up. My colleague, Dave, said not to worry. He knew Kac very well and could find him. So boss and Dave got in the car and started to drive. Every once and a while Dave would give a direction. "Mark would have turned right here"; "He would have turned left here". Finally, 40+ miles later, Dave said, "Thats the kind of motel Mark would stay in." The stopped and sure enough, Kac had checked in and was waiting for them!

Kac says there are geniuses and there are magicians. Once someone like you or me see how a genius has done something it doesn't look so hard. For the magician, you just scratch your head!

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