Tag Archives: friend

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.

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.

Charles Stenard, *67, Bell Labs (Retired) – Remembrances of Mike from an old friend and sometime interlocutor

Remembering my friend, Mike Mahoney – By Charles Stenard, September 23, 2008

I remember Mike from as far back as our overlapping undergraduate years at Harvard (1956-58), and subsequently at Princeton, a few years later, as we completed graduate studies – Mike in history of science, I in mathematics (1967). Our wives met at the Wyman Club for graduate student spouses and have been friends since.

Mike was always interested in mathematics, and would pose questions to me that I had no clue how to answer – questions that were profoundly interesting, typically about the possible origins of a seminal mathematical idea that came to pervade our culture today. (One such discussion, taking place at a holiday dance for graduate student couples, pertained to the early development of symbolic reasoning that became the intellectual seeds for algebra, logic, and computers. I quickly realized the depth of his question, and from his clarifications, I knew that he was already way beyond my utter lack of any notion of the topic.)

Many years later, circa 1987-1988, as a member of Bell Labs, I invited Mike to work with me to address a challenging problem of re-hosting a huge number of diverse computer programs for the U.S. National Weather Service. There were perhaps 100 million lines of software to be converted, controlled, and made available to meteorologists for experimentation with new forecasting techniques. I enlisted Mike, knowing that he was an expert on the software productivity crisis of the 1960’s and 70’s. He joined me at Bell Labs, and we enjoyed a very productive summer and several months beyond. My technical colleagues could not at first understand the role of an historian, but I called Mike my “secret weapon” and he soon proved my point. We had a wonderfully stimulating time. Mike got to know the minds of the software and computer researchers at Bell Labs, which he absorbed in his analysis of the modern software revolution.

Mike always had superb taste for penetrating topics of sweeping historical and scientific perspective. At a seminar at the Institute for Advanced Study on the role of sketches in creativity (circa 2003), Mike brilliantly showed Huygens’ sketches of the cycloidal patterns guiding a flexible pendulum suspension as used in the first isochronous pendulum clock, enabling accurate longitude measurement crucial to navigation. Mike’s explanation of the sketches made it evident how it works. Another example is a public lecture Mike delivered about why the West has led the technology revolution, dating from circa 1600 to now. He gave a compelling analysis that technology was “mathematicized” early and uniquely in the West. He demonstrated an enormous breadth of understanding of the historical unfolding of mathematical invention, and the role of a very few super-geniuses concentrated in the West making huge leaps that were elaborated upon by the mathematical and scientific communities around them. These examples illustrate his marvelous gift to choose pivotal topics for research, draw often-surprising conclusions, and make his research crystal clear to others.

I value our conversations and collaborations over the years. I was privileged to be a good friend.

Jon Edwards, Coordinator, Institutional Communications and Outreach, Office of Information Technology, Princeton University

Mike ate lunch almost every day at the student center… I made a habit of joining him whenever I was there. It’s a tough place now to enter.

Although we had known each other well since 1986, I got to know Mike very well this past year. We hoped to write a history of Princeton computing together and, towards that end, we shared wonderful stories.

Many of you may not know or recall that Mike was a Faculty Fellow at Forbes College during the mid 1980s. He was excited by a $6M grant that the University got in 1984 from IBM. Of course, Mike recognized before most of us that the students would use the machines almost exclusively for word processing. The papers looked fantastic, Mike recalled… they just didn’t read that way.

Mike was a finalist for the position of VP for Computing here at Princeton, the job that Ira Fuchs took in 1986. It’s hard not to imagine how different life might have been here had Mike gotten the job. He wasn’t in love with technology for its own sake, far more for the promise of how it could help us.

The fact is that he knew the history, and knew the institution. An irreplaceable combination. As a friend, a colleague, a lunch companion, I miss him profoundly.

Jon Edwards