A colleague Bill Wardlaw (Robert Steinberg’s 2nd PhD student, I believe) retired recently and I was offered his office. I thought “this will be a nice chance to clean out all the junk I’ve accumulated” and started the move yesterday. You know those boxes that reams of xerox paper gets delivered in? I had 12 of those boxes filled with preprints, many unsorted – not counting the piles of papers which were on top of the boxes because I was too lazy to put them in. I resolved to throw away every paper I had not looked at in the past two years or I had a copy of electronically.
I started with a random box and managed to toss some papers out before running across an old, very well-worn xerox copy of Hejhal’s “Selberg’s trace formula and the Riemann zeta function” (published in the Duke Math J, but I forgot the year). I could not make myself throw it away! I had these intense memories of the times I loved reading it. In fact, I’ve read that paper several times and loved it each time. I realized I loved that paper too much to trash it. A little extreme since it was just a xerox copy but I just figured I’ll just save that one paper.
Back to work, I trashed several more papers and eventually came across some mimeographed notes of A. Weil, signed by Weil himself. I can’t throw away a piece of mathematical history! By the way, my memory of things is that I got these papers by being assigned Larry Goldstein’s old office at the University of Maryland (I was there for 1 year after graduating in 1983 and LG had just retired), who cleaned out his office but left a few old preprints assuming they would be trashed I guess. The reason LG had them was because he somehow inherited some papers of Robert Mountjoy. I remember hearing that RM died in a traffic accident on his way from Princeton, where he had a postdoc, to the University of Maryland, where he was going to start a tenure track job. I remember hearing that Mountjoy was a student of Andre Weil but according to the math genealogy project, he was a student of Saunders MacLane. In any case, he graduated from the University of Chicago in 1964 and Weil left Chicago for the IAS in 1958, so Weil could not have been his official advisor. Mountjoy got these papers from Weil himself. Now I have them and, to me, they are priceless. They remind me of the 2 times I met Prof Weil. One was a party given by V. Chari and the other was a dinner at an India restaurant with V. Chari, A. Weil and myself. Weil knew VC because he once spend some time in India where he became close friends with VC’s father. I remember he gave me the problem of trying to generalize his proof of quadratic reciprocity using Eisenstein series of the 2-fold metaplectic cover of SL(2) to prove higher reciprocity using n-fold covers. I never was able to solve his problem (I think it is still unsolved) but will never forget his kindness (nor VC’s, though she was young herself too at the time) towards a very young and very green postdoc. So, I cherish and treasure those preprints and could never throw them away either.
Are you starting to see the pattern? To make a long story short, I started with 12+ boxes and, at the end of the process, ended up with 7 boxes. There are too many papers I either love now or have strong memories of the time I enjoyed reading them. Some were just beautifully written, some full of extraordinary ideas, and some just astonishing for their display of shear mathematical wizardry.
I guess I’m a mathematical romantic.