Opinion 103: Israel Moiseevich Gelfand (Sept. 2, 1913-Oct. 5, 2009)

By Doron Zeilberger

Written: 2:00 pm , Oct. 6, 2009

At these very moments, one of my great heroes, Israel Gelfand, is getting buried at the Floral Park Cemetery at Deans, NJ, and out of repsect to the family's wishes to keep it private, I decided not to attend it. Instead I am writing these lines.

Five years ago I explained why Israel Gelfand didn't "die" in Erdös' sense. While it seems that he "died" yesterday, in the vernacular sense of the word, he sure didn't. His mathematical heritage will stay with us for ever!

The prior probability that anyone would be a great mathematician is very very small. The probability that anyone would be a great mathematician and live so long, is smaller still. Let me take this opportunity to thank two people, in particular, who contibuted to the longevity of Israel. One is Tanya, his beloved wife, who took care both of his physical and spiritual (non-mathematical) needs, and especially turned him into a strict Vegan, like herself. I am sure that this added many years to his life. The other is his close collaborator, and most devoted disciple, Volodia Retakh, who, together with another devoted disciple, Robert Wilson, and Gelfand's son Sergei, collaborated on many different and fascinating projects. This collaboration kept him alive mathematically much longer than anyone else I know of, and, most probably, also contributed to his longevity.

True or False?:    the greatest mathematician of the second half of the 20th century died yesterday.

False! It is bad English to use the word "greatest" on sets whose cardinality is ≤ 2 . Israel Gelfand was the only surviving mathematician in the second half of the 20th century, since both Hilbert and Poincaré were already dead. There are lots of great algebraists, analysts, combinatorialists, number-theorists, topologists, etc. alive to day, but until the day before yesterday, the set of living mathematicians was a singleton, and yesterday it became the empty set.

ת ה י ה   נ ש מ ת ו   צ ר ו ר ה   ב צ ר ו ר   ה ח י י ם

Added Oct. 12, 2009: read Tatiana V. Gelfand's comment
Added Jan. 19, 2010: read Volodia Retakh's moving words
Opinions of Doron Zeilberger

Added Feb. 14, 2011: Watch the lecture: part 1   part 2 (produced by Edinah Gnang)