History of the Northeast Section
Howard Eves (1911-2004)
"His talks will hold an audience spellbound whether he addresses high school students, undergraduates, or mathematics faculty." So states a recent University of Central Florida flier advertising a lecture series by Howard Eves. Some years ago my wife, who professed great mathematical anxiety, my daughter, who was then in grammar school, and I attended his lecture Mathematically Motivated Designs at Colby College in Maine. All three of us were completely fascinated by the talk, showing the opening quotation to be an understatement.Indeed as one of his colleagues described him, Howard Eves is "one of the most fascinating lectures in mathematics that one can hope to find anywhere."
Howard Eves obtained his B.S. from the University of Virginia in 1934 and his M.A. from Harvard the next year, both in mathematics.He did further study at Princeton University during the next two years, and received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Oregon State University in 1948.
While at Princeton, he met many renowned mathematicians, including Albert Einstein, with whom he became well acquainted.Since they lived near one another, they would walk home together many afternoons.Along the route there was a drugstore with a huge ice cream cone out front.One day Einstein remarked that it looked inviting, so Eves offered to buy him one.From then on, it became a ritual for Howard to buy cones for the two of them as they walked home.One day, as they approached the drugstore, Einstein's eyes lit up and he exclaimed, "Look!I've got my own nickel today!" When he placed it on the counter to pay for his cone, Eves was prepared and snatched it up, replacing it with one of his own.That nickel became one of the first acquisitions in Howard Eves' famous Mathematical Museum: a nickel once owned by Albert Einstein.
Shortly after Oswald Veblen died at his retirement home on the Maine coast, Howard Eves visited the grounds for a quiet stroll in memory of this famous mathematician.As he walked beside the house he spotted a new broken yellow pencil on the ground, picked it up, and added it to his museum.Surely this was Veblen's pencil, for who else but a nearly blind person would drop a bright yellow pencil, step on it and break it, and still not see it to pick it up?Although no longer intact, Eves' Mathematical Museum would have filled a station wagon at one time.
After his stint at Princeton,Howard worked as surveyor for a year and as a mathematician for the Tennessee Valley Authority for another year.Then he went into teaching at Syracuse University 1940-1943, at the University of Puget Sound 1943-44, where he was head of the department, Oregon State University 1944-51, SUNY at Plattsburgh 1951-53, again as department head,SUNY at Binghamton 1953-54, and the University of Maine 1954 to his retirement in 1976.
Since retirement he has taught at the University of Maine at Machias and currently he teaches each spring at the University of Central Florida and summers at home in Lubec Maine, literally a stone throw from the easternmost tip of the United States.
Howard Eves has published well over 30 books and 200 papers and articles, many in geometry.His book on the history of mathematics has been the best seller in its field ever since its initial appearance in 1953.Ten years later he published his authoritative A Survey of Geometry in two volumes.His Mathematical Circles books, published by Prindle, Weber & Schmidt in six volumes from 1969 to 1987, form an outstanding collection of anecdotes and stories about mathematics and mathematicians.Of a more serious nature are his two Great Moments in Mathematics books, a collection of 43 lectures describing important developments in mathematics from the proof of the Pythagorean theorem to the resolution of the four color problem. They are volumes 5 and 7 in the Dolciani Mathematical Expositions, published in 1980 and 1981 by the Mathematical Association of America. These two series, the Circles and Great Moments books should be on the shelves of every teacher of mathematics, along with his History text.
For a quarter century he edited the Elementary Problem Department of the American Mathematical Monthly, publishing ten problems each month.It was my privilege to assist him during the last two years of his term. After an interim editor suddenly gave up this back-breaking task, Eves organized the Problems Group at the University of Maine, a collection of nine or ten faculty members who collectively edited the Elementary Problems Department for several years. He is an active problemist, still publishing problems and solutions in the journals.
He has served on the editorial boards of Mathematics Magazine, the Mathematics Teacher, the Two Year College Mathematics Magazine, and the Fibonacci Quarterly. Pi Mu Epsilon, Sigma Xi, Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Delta Zeta, and the Mark Twain Society have all honored him with memberships.He has been active in the Mathematical Association of America, the American Mathematical Society, and the French Mathematical Society.
We first became acquainted in 1956 when I started teaching at the University of Maine.I took several courses from him and sat in on several others to learn what I could from him.For the next twenty years we worked together on various projects.
There are many stories that illustrate just how much Howard Eves cares for people.He has often stated that his skills and knowledge have been given to him by others and it is his responsibility to pass them on.Therefore he could not keep the royalties that his books have earned;he has given them all to a black college.Over the years he has befriended many people who needed help and has aided them with money, lodging, and encouragement.
All these things he has done with a delightful sense of humor.He once confided that it terrified him that after he drove home, he remembered leaving the office and then his next recollection would be of driving into the garage.For all he knew he could have caused several accidents and run over all sorts of people on the way home.He said he would turn to the Police Beat of the local newspaper each morning to see if anyone was the victim of a hit-and-run accident in his area the preceding day and he would carefully check his car for dented fenders.Of course, there never was such an accident.I once told him that I had attended a lecture on continued fractions.He immediately replied that of course the lecturer never completed the lecture.
They say that all good teachers are frustrated actors at heart.Certainly Howard Eves is a seasoned performer.Upon occasion he will tell of the ways that mathematicians have met their ends:Archimedes was stabbed by a Roman soldier; Pythagoras was burned to death because he would not escape through a sacred field of grain;Hypatia was stoned to death by her Christian students, and so forth.The humor with which he would tell of the way Rene Descartes died because of the request of the young Queen Christina of Sweden had his students in stitches.When they would be laughing so hard that tears came to their eyes, he would stop and look at them with mock shock and say, "I can't understand why you are all laughing so.This is Tragic."
I owe much to Howard Eves.He inspired and encouraged me to start writing books.He led me into problems work.He showed me his love for teaching and for mathematics and taught me that a teacher must be scrupulously honest with his or her students.If I am a good teacher, it is mainly his example that has made me so.
University of Maine