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.
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.
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.
I took Mike Mahoney’s lecture course and graduate seminar on the Scientific Revolution in my first semester at Princeton and these courses have remained models for me in how to approach these topics and teaching more generally. Mike embodied the Princeton program’s motto of “living beyond” the distinction between internalist and externalist. He included the latest works without neglecting older ones, and encouraged students to build their own syntheses with nuance, open-mindedness and sound judgment. I will always feel grateful for his generous teaching. With belated thanks to Mike and heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.
I first met Mike Mahoney in the fall of 1988, when I was a beginning graduate student. I had the good fortune to take a reading course with him on the scientific revolution and to attend his undergraduate lectures on the same topic. His brilliant performances in the class vividly brought to life the alien world and intellectual struggles of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and Newton. I was also impressed by how Mike conducted our weekly meetings, where I was supposed to come in with questions on the reading assignments. His encouraging pedagogic style still resonates in me. He pretended not to notice my abysmal ignorance and treated my naïve questions with a respect they hardly deserved. When I turned in my final writing assignment Mike responded with great generosity. He wrote me a dense, two-page commentary, which offered much needed, constructive criticism of my over-ambitious attempt to attribute Newton’s achievement to his philosophical outlook.
For the rest of my graduate career, I had ample opportunity to witness Mike’s sharp intellect and the amazing breadth and depth of his knowledge. In the program meetings and colloquia, one could not fail to notice his amazing ability to discuss with ease a bewildering variety of topics.
Towards the end of my graduate studies, I had the privilege to become Mike’s teaching assistant in his course on the history of technology, which ranged from medieval mills to 20th century computers. I then realized that Mike was equally at home in the world of texts and in the world of machines. He taught students (and their fortunate preceptor) how to treat machines as texts and extract from them the intentions of their makers. Mike was no deconstructionist! The various teaching tips he gave me, during our weekly discussions over lunch, proved invaluable in my subsequent career as a teacher.
A few years after my return to Greece, Mike was invited to lecture at my new academic home, the University of Athens. He gave two engaging talks on computational science in the 17th and the 20th centuries, which made a striking impression on faculty and students. Besides his memorable lectures, I recall with nostalgia the pleasant conversations I had with Mike and Jean about their family and travels.
The news of Mike’s untimely passing came as a shock and brought back these and many other memories. It is hard to picture the Princeton program in history of science without him. As a Greek saying goes, may the earth that covers him be light.
I was so sad to hear that Mike Mahoney died. He was not just a brilliant, razor-sharp mind, he was also a lovely, well-rounded human being. He was an inspired teacher and kept up with an impressive body of literature in widely disparate fields. But he would get a real twinkle in his eye when he talked about his wife, children, and grandchildren. He didn’t shield that aspect of his life from his graduate students, and I always admired and appreciated that about him. My heartfelt condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues. He will be dearly missed.
I just heard from a History of Computing List of the distressing news of Mike Mahoney’s death. I did not know him well, so did not know his family beyond brief acquaintance; but I hope you can pass to them my sincere condolences. He was a warm and generous man who taught me a very great deal when I was young and eager at Princeton in 1970-72. I have a vivid image of him dressed up as Copernicus, delivering a lecture to the undergraduates – a nicely turned piece of theatre that worked perfectly and which he performed with grace and humour. I was surprised – and from then on had a much clearer sense of his considerable range of skills and personal gifts. After all, he didn’t appear to be a showy man – I had valued him for his understatedness, if anything – but he revealed he was an unshowy man who put on a very good show!
One of the longest lasting impressions was of his wit and humorous view of life and scholarship – a permanent undercurrent of the comic, often ready to emerge, ranging from the arch to the absurd. In later years, I would often turn to his work on the history of computing as the best guide to a field I was no expert in, quite the contrary, but found really interesting. It gave me a curious but considerable pleasure to realize he had helped open up this important new field, an enterprising and adventurous thing to do, and that he was helping lead that field by example. That example – finally, that was an important thing about Mike: his scholarship was impeccable and had strands of brilliance running through it. And that went hand in hand with my sense of the man: rigorous, honest, reliable – and sometimes very, very funny. Without thinking much about it, I realized how much I admired him. A very sad loss.