Thursday, April 10, 2008

Remembering Dr. Stong

I'd like to take a few minutes to reflect on the short time I've known Dr. Stong, as he sadly passed away this morning. It was only last year that he retired. I had hoped that he would have a long and happy retirement, continuing to show up for topology seminar (so that he could fall asleep in the corner). I wish I had arrived in the department earlier, so that I might have gotten to take more classes with him. Dr. Stong was the only professor I know that cursed happily throughout lectures, making them all the more interesting. Though his hands were visibly shaky away from the chalkboard, his script was among the most tidy I've seen written on blackboard, which I was always amazed by.

It frequently happens in mathematics that you set up some maps between objects, making some obvious choices, and the maps have nice properties. For example, in topology your maps hopefully work out to be homotopy equivalences (at least), or when you apply homotopy or homology functors you get isomorphisms. Dr. Stong had a theorem along these lines, announced in class one day: every map is an isomorphism. Clearly this isn't correct, but I know that he meant: every map that isn't obviously not an isomorphism is an isomorphism (replace isomorphism with whatever property you are looking at). I will continue to refer to this as Dr. Stong's theorem. I'm sure his mathematical research deserves much better recognition, but I don't know any of it. Stong's theorem shows up all the time :)

The only class I had with Dr. Stong was cobordism, his area of expertise. However, he was one of the professors that proctored my second year oral exam. Though I didn't think it went very well, after I had finished and retired to my office he came down to say that he was pleased, and that it went as well as could be hoped. Certainly I was relieved that I had passed, but also grateful that he come by to let me know. It was a wonderful gesture. I suppose I hadn't thought much about it, but I had kinda figured on Dr. Stong being at my thesis defense. Alas.

I also remember that Dr. Stong objected to one of the definitions I made toward the beginning of a talk I gave last semester. It was a perfectly legitimate objection, questioning mostly a matter of notation. I don't honestly recall, but I like to think that I defended my notation, as he let me continue my talk. He didn't say anything else the rest of the talk, and I tend to think that he fell asleep. I'll miss Dr. Stong's objections in seminars.

So the department is left without its one cursing professor and its Santa (Dr. Stong dressed up as St. Nick for the holiday party). Our topology seminar will have one more empty desk. I'll still have my stories.

Mathematical results last forever, even when the mathematician doesn't. Goodbye Dr. Stong.

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