Gian-Carlo Rota

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Gian-Carlo Rota
Gian-Carlo Rota blackboard Nizza 1970.jpg
Rota in 1970.
Born (1932-04-27)April 27, 1932
Vigevano, Italy
Died April 18, 1999(1999-04-18) (aged 66)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Residence Italy, Ecuador, USA
Fields Mathematics, Philosophy
Institutions Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Alma mater Princeton University
Yale University
Doctoral advisor Jacob T. Schwartz
Notable students Richard Ehrenborg, Mark Haiman, Patrick O'Neil, Richard P. Stanley, Ray Magliozzi, William Chen, William Schmitt, Catherine Yan. Kenneth Holladay

Gian-Carlo Rota (April 27, 1932 – April 18, 1999, known as Juan Carlos Rota to Spanish-speakers) was an Italian-born American mathematician and philosopher.

Life[edit]

Rota was born in Vigevano, Italy. His father, Giovanni, a prominent antifascist, was the brother of the composer Nino Rota and of the mathematician Rosetta, who was the wife of the writer Ennio Flaiano.[1] Gian-Carlo's family left Italy when he was 13 years old, initially going to Switzerland.

Rota attended the Colegio Americano de Quito in Ecuador, and earned degrees at Princeton University and Yale University. Much of his career was spent as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was and remains the only person ever to be appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics and Philosophy. Rota was also the Norbert Wiener Professor of Applied Mathematics.

In addition to his professorships at MIT, Rota held four honorary degrees, from the University of Strasbourg, France (1984); the University of L'Aquila, Italy (1990); the University of Bologna, Italy (1996); and Brooklyn Polytechnic University (1997). From 1966 until his untimely death in 1999, Rota was a consultant at Los Alamos National Laboratory, frequently visiting to lecture, discuss, and collaborate, notably with his friend Stanislaw Ulam. He was also a consultant for the Rand Corporation (1966–71) and for the Brookhaven National Laboratory (1969-1973). Rota 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.[2]

He taught a difficult but very popular course in probability, 18.313, which MIT has not offered again. He also taught 18.001 (Applications of Calculus), 18.03 (Differential Equations), and 18.315 (Combinatorial Theory). His philosophy course in phenomenology was offered on Friday nights to keep the enrollment manageable. Among his many eccentricities, he would not teach without a can of Coca-Cola, and handed out prizes ranging from Hershey bars to pocket knives to students who asked questions in class or did well on tests.[3][4]

Rota could be temperamental at times. For example, in 1978 he abruptly stopped teaching his probability course, 18.313, in mid-semester as a result of some survey responses stating that his teaching methods were ineffective. Greatly offended, he announced to the class that he had found someone else to teach the course for the rest of the semester, and as a parting shot, passed out a long and difficult take-home examination. A petition by the students resulted in his return to teaching the course a few days later.

Rota began his career as a functional analyst, but switched to become a distinguished combinatorialist. His series of ten papers on "Foundations of Combinatorics" in the 1960s is credited with making it a respectable branch of modern mathematics. He said that the one combinatorial idea he would like to be remembered for is the correspondence between combinatorial problems and problems of the location of the zeroes of polynomials.[5] He worked on the theory of incidence algebras (which generalize the 19th-century theory of Möbius inversion) and popularized their study among combinatorialists, set the umbral calculus on a rigorous foundation, unified the theory of Sheffer sequences and polynomial sequences of binomial type, and worked on fundamental problems in probability theory. His philosophical work was largely in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.

Gian-Carlo Rota died, apparently in his sleep, at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His death was discovered after he failed to arrive in Philadelphia for lectures he had planned to give beginning on Monday, April 19, 1999. The Middlesex County (Mass.) Medical Examiner ruled the cause of Rota's death as artherosclerotic cardiac disease.[2]

A reading room (2-285) in MIT's Department of Mathematics is dedicated to Rota.

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