Tag Archives: Princeton University

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.

Theodore Arabatzis, graduate student 1988-1995, currently Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy and History of Science, University of Athens, Greece

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.

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