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May 15

 X A Dedication-Nick Metas

 

metas

 

I dedicate this website to the man that first and last directed me towards mathematics and inspired my life's work of a global free platform for it's education to the masses: Nick Metas, the longtime graduate advisor in the mathematics department at Queens College of the City University Of New York. Nick was and continues to be my greatest influence in all matters academic.

I first had a conversation on the phone with Nick over 15 years ago when I was a young chemistry major taking calculus and just becoming interested in mathematics. He answered from his office with such a friendly and approachable voice. I wanted some references to begin to study mathematics and one of my calculus teachers told me he was the person in the department to talk to. At the time, I was an ambitious but miserable chemistry major with dreams of becoming a PHD/MD who became one of the world's foremost physician/scientists and changed medicine from a ruthless business back into an actual pursuit of knowledge and the healing arts. Which,of course,made me a laughing stock to the other premeds, who were mostly sociology and accounting majors who stole organic chemistry exams and read law books on their spare time so when they killed someone through greed or incompetence, they could talk their way out of it in court. I wasn't like them. I think Nick knew that right away. We spoke for over 3 hours and we were friends from that moment on. Mathematics quickly became a joy and a revelation where why became the central question rather then what the hell did you get on that test. Years later, when I finally was broken under humiliation, illness and the financial and psychological toll of my father's cancer,I quit to finally become a mathematics major full time.It was like being let out of prison. Nick had opened that door for me and his encouragement gave me the will to pursue my dream regardless of the personal and financial cost. You only live once and you can't live in misery because of that.

It was Nick who indoctrinated me into the ways of true rigor through his courses and countless conversations in his office in the mathematics department late at night after the classes ended.  In my formative years in his basic topology and algebra courses, I struggled to make the mental transition from knowing to proving. I wouldn't have been able to make that transition without Nick. He would prepare beautiful,detailed notes that became the bible of our courses with him. Whenever one of us would ask a question or make a comment that showed we didn't really understand, he'd turn in that sing-song voice of his and say, "Look at your notes! Look at your notes! I know your notes better then you know your notes!" And the scary part was he usually did.............lol

His courses were notoriously brutal for neophytes and non-mathematics majors foolish enough to register. He was the nicest guy in the world-until he graded your exams. You basically got one of 4 grades in Nick's classes- A, B, C, and F. There were 2 exceptions: If you got virtually perfect grades on his exams-which was rare, but did happen-he gave an A+. Most of these students usually went on to Great Things. If you failed but he really liked you and didn't want your GPA to suffer too much, he'd give you a D and very honestly tell you math probably wasn't for you. Such ruthlessness with a red pen was something it's hard to justify outside of mathematics- but this is really what makes rigorous mathematics different from everything else. Either it's all correct or it's wrong. Period. When asked by students he'd burned with his grades why he didn't give part credit, Nick would smile mischievously and say,"Suppose I'm a surgeon and I amputate the wrong limb. Should I get part credit?" I know, most students reading this right now are probably calling him every derogatory name under the sun-I'm making him sound like Smuag. But Nick's tough love was really stemmed in the nature of the beast of mathematics. Students that aren't ruthlessly critiqued in their first rigorous mathematics course never break the bad habits of assuming more then they really have a right to. And it wasn't really as heartless as it sounds because Nick gave literally hours of his time for questions and answers to the students who were willing to pour their blood into it. I remember times I'd come to see him at his late office hours 5-6 pm before an exam and it would be a packed house. And he'd stay as long as it took to help the students and I don't remember him ever losing his temper and berating any of us. Quite the opposite.

 

Nick is a true scholar and my enormous knowledge of the textbook literature and research papers from the 1960's onward,I learned from Nick.My learned capacity for self-learning got me through the lean years at CUNY during my illnesses,when there wasn't much of a mathematics department there. Things got markedly better in later years with the establishment of the Honors College at CUNY-but the number of talented mathematics majors in the department still barely got past double digits. In any event, whatever the number of math majors at any given time in the QC math department, you could usually find all of us at one time or another either attending Nick's lectures or talking to him after class and listening to his wonderful, inspiring tales of mathematics and the mathematicians that made it.

In one to one correspondence to Nick's passions and joys in teaching math was the cardinality of the set of stories he's told. There are so many wonderful stories, I don't know which one to include here. But one in particular comes to mind because it's one of his favorites. When he was a graduate student at MIT in the early 1960's,he had a fellow graduate student who was top of his class as an undergraduate and published several papers before graduating. When he got to MIT, he refused to attend classes, feeling such "textbook work" was beneath him." This is all dead mathematics-I want to study living mathematics! Stop wasting my time with stuff from before World War I!" As a result, he had some really bizarre holes in his training. For example, he understood basic notions of algebraic geometry and category theory, but he didn't understand what the limit of a complex function was. As a result, not only did he fail his qualifying exams, his own presented research suffered greatly-he was always playing catch-up. Eventually, he dropped out and Nick never heard from him again. He always tells his students this story in order to make them understand something fundamental about mathematics-it's a subject that builds vertically, from the most basic foundations upward to not only more sophisticated results, but from the oldest to the most recent results. There were afternoons I went to Nick's office and we ended up doing no mathematics because we both got so caught up in the remarkable stories he had to tell. He would hold us enthralled, this little hobbit-like man with the kind laugh and wonderful smile.

I can proudly say I'm combinatorics legend Gian-Can Rota's mathematical grandson through Nick. (Which is rather ironic since I can't do combinatorics to save my life..........lol) Nick loved Rota and his eyes light up when he speaks of his dissertation advisor and friend from his student days at MIT. I hope someday there's someone famous I can feel that way about. But no one's influenced me more then Nick.

Nick's has been my friend and advisor for all things mathematical.I'm sorry to say since I began work on this website, I haven't spoken or seen much of Nick. The last time I saw him, he celebrated his 74th birthday  quietly in his usual office hour,with dozens of students asking him for advice or just listening to his wonderful stories and jokes. Regardless of what happens,it will be Nick who's influence on me as a mathematician, student and mentor who's shaped me the most. I hope it's his spirit that infuses this site and I can inspire struggling mathematics students the way he inspired me.

This one's for you, buddy.

 

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