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Conference to Honor Historical Career of Michael Sean Mahoney

The Historical Career of Michael Sean Mahoney

Sponsored by the Department of History and Program in History of Science

Friday, May 15, 2009                      9:15AM – 5:30PM
Saturday, May 16, 2009                 9:30AM – 3:30PM

The Department of History and Program in the History of Science at Princeton University present a two-day conference in memory of Professor Michael Sean Mahoney. The conference will attempt to cover the breadth and depth of Professor Mahoney’s interests in the history of science and technology from early modernity to the present day. Papers will address topics including the history of mathematics, the history of engineering, and the historiography and pedagogy of science.

All sessions will be held in 211 Dickinson Hall

RSVP to mfanfair@princeton.edu
or by phone: 609-258-6705. For RSVPs, kindly specify the date(s) you will be attending.

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Memorial Resolution

On November 3, 2008, a Memorial Resolution for Michael Mahoney, conceived by a committee of colleagues from the Department of History and authored by Charles Gillispie, was read aloud at a University faculty meeting. The signed PDF version of this resolution is available via the link below.

Memorial Resolution.pdf

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Angela Creager, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Program in History of Science, Princeton University

On July 23, 2008, Princeton lost a cherished teacher and scholar, Michael S. Mahoney. This page contains remembrances and tributes to our friend, colleague, and professor. Mike was a mainstay of Princeton’s Program in History of Science since its earliest years, first as a graduate student then as a faculty member for four decades. He possessed an uncommon breadth of knowledge, active in both the history of early modern science and the history of twentieth-century computing. Those of us knew him are grateful for his friendship and his wide-range contributions to our field. These entries honor his life and legacy.

Entries submitted here using the submit-entry link at right will be forwarded to the Program in History of Science for posting.

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David Hochman, undergraduate student, class of 1978

Lured in by the course guide, just as Tony Grafton describes elsewhere on this page, I found myself entranced by Mike’s survey course on the scientific world view of the middle ages and antiquity, and I ended up one of three undergraduate students of my year in the history track of the old HPS program. It was an intimate and electrifying experience. As I found myself reminiscing a few years ago for my class’s 25th-reunion book, “a clear high point was studying the history of early modern mathematics side-by-side with the program’s exceptionally talented graduate students, in a 500-level course taught by Prof. Mike Mahoney.” I’m now really glad I sent that tribute to Mike at the time. His response was gracious, of course. So many of us are saddened that future undergraduates who ought to have known him will never do so except indirectly through our own histories.

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Sandy Thatcher, close friend, currently Director of the Penn State Press

(Originally posted on http://www.chronicle.com/review/brainstorm/katz)

I knew Mike for many years while I was working at Princeton University Press, which published his book on Fermat in 1973. I was not his editor, but we often talked about books and publishing, which meant a lot to him. But we talked even more about swimming as it was one of his passions, as Stan notes, along with running. I served as Secretary of the Friends of Princeton Swimming for over 15 years, and Mike was one of the two stalwart faculty advisers to the men’s and women’s swim teams (Politics professor Jim Doig being the other), a role much appreciated by the undergraduate swimmers. And he was an avid masters swimmer, favoring the long freestyle distances (though he could also swim a good butterfly), until he switched over to running as his primary activity. I remember being shocked at seeing him, after some months’ interval after that switch, changed physically in such a dramatic way: from having had a physique characterized by broad shoulders and something of a paunch, he had come to have a much slimmer upper-body profile while losing the beer belly entirely! I have never witnessed such an amazing physical transformation in anyone due to change in exercise priorities; Mike himself admitted that he had to get rid of all his old wardrobe and buy a new one to fit his changed body shape. I guess the damage running can do over time must have forced him back into the pool, and it is tragic that he met his end there. But as one who shares a passion for that sport, I figure that Mike himself, like the cowboy who wants to die with his boots on, would have preferred this ending to one occurring in a hospital bed. There are many of us who will have fond memories of Mike to cherish over our years to come and keep his spirit alive among us.

Robert Segal, University of Aberdeen

(Originally posted to http://www.chronicle.com/review/brainstorm/katz)

I was a grad student at Princeton several decades ago. While my degree was in religious studies, I audited one of Professor Mahoney’s undergraduate courses on the history of science and became friends with him. He was always willing to meet with me to discuss issues from the course. He was as kind as he was knowledgeable. I learned more from him than from any of my teachers in religion. I stayed in touch with him intermittently and was very sad to learn of his death. He was a decent, unassuming, and generous person.

Stan Katz, Professor of Public and International Affairs and Director of Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University

Posted to the Brainstorm blog of the Chronicle Review, October 19, 2008.

It was a beautiful day in Princeton yesterday. The sky was blue and cloudless, and the air was crisp. The Brown Bears were in town to play football with the Princeton Tigers. But several hundred friends of the historian of science Michael S. Mahoney were not walking across our beautiful campus. We were gathered in the university chapel for Mike’s memorial service. It was an occasion as sad as usual when we are memorializing a beloved and admired colleague. But it was also an uplifting occasion, as is so frequently the case when remembering a wholly admirable person.

Mike earned his Ph.D. in history of science at Princeton, working with one of the giants of the field, Charles Gillispie — who was seated in the pew immediately ahead of me yesterday morning. Mike’s original specialty was the early history of European mathematics, and his dissertation described the career of the great mathematician Pierre de Fermat. He later also wrote about Descartes, Barrow, Huygens, and Isaac Newton. Mike several times tried to explain to me Fermat’s famous problem, with absolutely no success, but when our colleague Andrew Wiles solved the problem a decade ago, Mike’s work on Fermat was rediscovered and (once again) admired. Later in his career, Mike turned his attention to the history of technology, and especially to the development of computers, computer science, and software — he made the move from the 17th to the 20th century effortlessly, and emerged as one of the most important historians of computing. He and I shared an interest in the application of computing to humanities research and teaching, and he was a crucial guide to me in my work, for he understood both the theory and the technology in a way that I could not approach.

The speakers yesterday acknowledged Mike’s scholarship, but to a person they focused on Mike’s commitment to teaching. His daughter and son were eloquent in describing the dinner table “seminars” that Mike conducted at 6 p.m. every evening, and the chapel was full of former undergraduate and graduate students testifying to his passion for teaching and commitment to his students. He could explain the Scientific Revolution and the development of the ENIAC computer with the same ease and clarity. Both his children and his students avowed that Mike was always there for them.

Less remarked yesterday was Mike’s passion for working with school teachers. To be sure, a couple of speakers mentioned that Mike had been a member of the local school board. But he was also a stalwart of Princeton’s Teacher Preparation program, and a member of our committee to select New Jersey’s prize teachers every spring. For me, however, most important was his leadership of the board of the late and lamented National Faculty, an organization for many years devoted to facilitating the work of college faculty with high school teachers in several different subject matters. Mike was especially committed to working with teachers of mathematics and history, and he was both tireless and inspired in organizing the work of the National Faculty (to whose board he recruited me).

More than anything else, Mike was a quietly solidifying force in our history department. He never took sides in partisan conflicts, he kept in touch with everyone, and he exuded a passionate serenity that we all admired. He was, in short, the sort of person who holds departments and universities together without ever asking thanks. He was a swimmer and runner (whom I saw at 6 a.m. most mornings when I went out for a walk or bike ride), so it was shocking when his heart stopped while swimming in the college pool on July 23. It seemed too big a heart to stop, and all of us who gathered to remember Mike Mahoney yesterday are still puzzled by our loss. Sometimes we do not realize whom the most important people are until we lose them.

Kevin Weddle, graduate student 1999-2002, currently Professor of Military Theory and Strategy, US Army War College

I was fortunate to take two directed study courses with Mike and to have him on my dissertation committee. His insights into the history of engineering and technology revealed to me a new world that I had never considered. His depth of knowledge and friendly prodding during our many sessions together in his office made me a better student, teacher, and scholar. Plus, I just enjoyed being with him. During these meetings our discussions would inevitably touch on our families. It was obvious from the start how much he loved Jean, his kids, and his grandkids. He was a wonderful human being and I miss him.

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David Aubin, graduate student, 1993-1997, currently Asscociate Professor in the History of the Mathematical Sciences at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris

As a former student of Mike’s and someone who had the great opportunity to work as a preceptor for his wonderful course on the history of technology, I would be hard pressed to overemphasize the magnitude of my debt to him. I remember with great nostalgy the late afternoon seminars on the scientific revolution in his cramped office on the top floor of Dickinson overfilled with great books and funny little machines. The Monday lunch he shared with his preceptors in the cafeteria of the Robertson Hall were also highly instructive. I am also thankful for the eery experience he made me partake in when he asked me to be a preceptor for a course on the History of Cold War Science for alumni of the Class of ’46.

A great teacher, Mike also influenced me very deeply as a scholar. Indeed, he was one of those whose published work, no matter how impressive it is, seems so much smaller than the extent of his deep command over the history of science and his inspirational insights in some of its greatest questions. I was especially struck by his panoramic views on the history of mathematization. For as long as I will have to deal with the subject, his voice wil be resounding very vividly in my mind.

Chikara Sasaki, graduate student 1976-80, currently Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo

From Chikara SASAKI, Graduate Student of the Program of History and Philosophy of Science and the Department of History, 1976-1980; Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Professor of History of Mathematics at the Graduate School of Mathematical Sciences of the University of Tokyo, Japan, & Visiting Professor of Northeastern University in Shenyang, People’s Republic of China; Obtained Ph. D. degree for the thesis on “Descartes’s Mathematical Thought” under the Guidance of Prof. Michael S. Mahoney.

I express my deep sentiment of sadness of the sudden death of Prof. Michael S. Mahoney, my teacher of history of mathematics at Princeton. I remember old good days studying very hard with Profs. Charles C. Gillispie, Thomas S. Kuhn, Michael S. Mahoney during the late 1970s. Please convey this message to all the participants of the mourning ceremony at the Princeton University Chapel on October 18, especially to Jean, Mrs. Mahoney.

Historians of mathematics in Japan remember Prof. Mahoney first of all through my Japanese translation of a collection of his excellent essays entitled “Mathematics in History” of which the first edition was published in 1982 and the enlarged second edition in 2007, and secondly through his recent brilliant papers on the history of computation. Some of them listened to his insightful lectures on the history of computer science and were impressed by his warm personality when he and Jean visited Japan in the fall of 1999. I, all of my students, and readers of his book not simply in Japan but also in China will succeed the great intellectual legacy of the late Prof. Michael S. Mahoney and remember him forever and ever.