The Duties of John von Neumann's Assistant
All of us Fellows were terrified what would happen to us if we couldn't
locate a spot for next year. At this time the political super-potentates of
the mathematical scene were centered in Princeton, N.J., where the Institute
of Advanced Study had recently been established. The School of Mathematics
was its leading school. There were about five mathematics professors at the
Institute. In order to further distinguish them from ordinary mortals
teaching at Columbia, Yale, or other universities, each professor had an
assistant. There was tremendous variation in the duties of these assistants.
It was traditional belief that Einstein's assistant did nothing. The only
requirement for him was to be a Jewish exile from Nazi Germany. Hermann
Weyl's assistant had normal duties: preparing in mimeographed form his
professor's lectures on group theory. I cannot imagine what Alexander's or
Veblen's assistants did---probably not much.
In early spring these potentates got together, counted up the mathematical
plums to be handed out for the year, and made a list of the available talent
who constituted the target space on which these plums were to be mapped. Then
they sent the customary letters to the candidates: a three-paragraph personal
letter to the candidates who had been hit, and a one-paragraph note of
non-success to the poor souls who did not make it. One day I learned that one
of my friends had received his letter---a good one. I gingerly went home, and
sure enough, there was a letter from the Institute. The type-print covered
the whole page---success! I would be able to live another year.
The letter was really exciting. I was being offered the job of assistant
to John von Neumann! I had heard him lecture several times. He was
brilliant, spoke very fast, his English was quite fluent, he made remarkably
I made a trip to Princeton and met with Veblen, who was running the
Institute [of Advanced Study]. ``What,'' asked I, ``are the duties of an
assistant to Professor von Neumann?'' Veblen answered with a mixture of
surprise and disdain, that a mere private second class should ask such a
question about a four star general. His answer staggered me. here were the
four principal duties of von Neumann's assistant:
Edgar R. Lorch, Szeged in 1934, American Mathematical
Monthly, vol. 100, #3, pp.220-221
- To attend von Neumann's lectures on operator theory on Mondays,
Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, take copious notes, complete unfinished
proofs, see them through the secretarial jungle, and promptly
circulate them to all American university libraries. This task
alone was consuming the entire energies of a younger person, who
had to be very sharp, fast, clever, and tough. These notes ran to
over 600 pages.
- To be von Neumann's assistant as Editor of the Annals of
Mathematics. This meant reading through every
manuscript accepted for publication, underlining Greek
letters in red and German letters in green, and circling
italics. Also writing in the margins all necessary
instructions to printers. The following anecdote
illustrates the hazards of being editorial assistant of the
Annals in the early thirties. A manuscript was
submitted by the brilliant Soviet mathematician, Lev
Pontryagin. Since paper was then exceptionally scarce in
the Soviet Union, Pontryagin had taken wrapping paper, torn
it into appropriate-sized pieces, and gone to work on his
typewriter. Unfortunately, Pontryagin was blind. The
wrapping paper was torn unevenly, and a good portion of the
words and symbols in the margins were missing. No matter.
The Annals editorial assistant retyped the paper,
supplying all the missing symbols. What a hero!
- To go once a week to the printers of the Annals of Mathematics in
Baltimore in order to instruct them in the art of typesetting
mathematical symbols with subscripts, superscripts, subsubscripts,
etc. The Annals of Mathematics had been printed in Hamburg,
Germany by the firm of Lutke and Wolk. In view of increasing
anti-Semitism under Hitler, the German connection was given up in
favor of printing in the United States. But no American printer
had ever before set up mathematical symbols! They were complete
illiterates. Solution: Let von Neumann's assistant teach them!
- To translate into English von Neumann's numerous 100-page papers.
Now that von Neumann was a professor in an American institute, it
was thought that his papers should appear in English, not German.
Since von Neumann was provided with an assistant, it was natural
that the assistant should do this.