Celebratio Mathematica

Joan S. Birman


by Joan S. Birman

This es­say began as an in­ter­view for a brief bio­graphy, with Rob Kirby ask­ing me some key ques­tions about my life, and send­ing me his drafts for edit­ing, but it soon be­came ap­par­ent to both of us that it would be bet­ter if I spoke with my own voice, so it evolved in­to an auto­bi­o­graph­ic­al sketch.

Early life

I was born on May 30, 1927, in New York City. My moth­er and fath­er were Lil­lian Siegel Lyttle and George Lyttle. Their par­ents had left the east­ern European “pale of set­tle­ment”, dur­ing a wave of emig­ra­tion by Jews who left home and fam­ily to es­cape anti-Semit­ism. My mom’s par­ents came to the US, and in par­tic­u­lar to the lower east side of Man­hat­tan, where many oth­ers went; my dad’s fam­ily settled in Liv­er­pool, Eng­land, where he grew up, com­ing to the US at 17 in search of ad­ven­ture and an eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity. In this brief auto­bi­o­graph­ic­al sketch I will at­tempt to de­scribe how this par­tic­u­lar mix of in­flu­ences im­pacted on the fam­ily at­mo­sphere in the Lyttle house­hold, when my three sis­ters and I were grow­ing up.

My ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents, Aigie and Re­uben Siegel,came from the town of Jonava in Lithuania (20 miles from Kaunas, near an ever-shift­ing bor­der between Rus­sia, Lithuania and Po­land). Re­uben had come to New York ahead of Aigie, seek­ing a bet­ter way of life, and a few years later 28-year-old Aigie joined him, ar­riv­ing with her two old­est chil­dren, my Uncle Jake and Aunt An­nie, in tow. The day of her ar­rival could be pin­pointed pre­cisely as 09/19/1881 be­cause she told me that she learned, from news­boys on the dock as their ship was land­ing, that the Pres­id­ent of the United States had been as­sas­sin­ated! She was ter­ri­fied, be­cause to her the US soun­ded just like Rus­sia, where the czar had been as­sas­sin­ated, and polit­ic­al chaos that was not good for Jews en­sued.

Re­uben Siegel had been a ped­dler in the “old coun­try”, and in New York he began his work­ing days selling fab­rics from a push­cart on the lower East Side of Man­hat­tan. He and his sons worked hard and prospered, even­tu­ally be­com­ing man­u­fac­turer’s of wo­men’s dresses. My moth­er, Lil, was born in New York in 1894. Lil told her chil­dren many stor­ies about as­sor­ted char­ac­ters from “the old coun­try” who ar­rived in New York and slept on their couch be­fore find­ing a job and a place to live. From her col­or­ful stor­ies, and more that we heard from my grand­moth­er Aigie (whose grand­chil­dren called her “Mimi”) it was a lively en­vir­on­ment, rich in cul­ture and tra­di­tion. Re­gard­ing the re­li­gious tra­di­tion, the em­phas­is in my fam­ily was more on the cul­ture than the re­li­gion.

After Re­uben died, Mimi lived with us half the year (shar­ing my bed­room). Every Fri­day night most of my moth­er’s broth­ers and sis­ters and their (some­times re­luct­ant) spouses and chil­dren joined us for a feast. I re­mem­ber those gath­er­ings very well, be­gin­ning with the won­der­ful smell of bread bak­ing when I came home from school on Thursday, and go­ing on to the fun of be­ing with my many cous­ins.

My pa­ternal grand­par­ents, Hy­man and Ada Lyttle, came from the town of Lida, on the shift­ing bor­der between Rus­sia and Lithuania. George was born in 1889 in Lida, but his par­ents, like those of the Olympic star Har­old Ab­ra­hams in the film “Chari­ots of Fire”, chose to go to Eng­land rather than to the US, ar­riv­ing when George was 3. The fam­ily name “Lyttle” was chosen by a Brit­ish im­mig­ra­tion of­ficer who asked George’s fath­er for his name. His Eng­lish was lim­ited, and think­ing he had been asked where he came from he answered “Lithuania”, which was re­cor­ded as “Lyttle”. George came to the US at the age of 17, seek­ing ad­ven­ture and eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity. He thrived, and soon set aside enough money to rent an apart­ment on River­side Drive near 180th Street, and bring his par­ents, his young­er broth­er Harry and three sis­ters to New York, work­ing his way up from ship­ping clerk to trav­el­ing sales­man to even­tu­al part own­er of the dress firm Siegel–Lyttle.

George told his chil­dren “If you’re will­ing to work hard enough, any­thing is pos­sible in the USA”, however he also told us, em­phat­ic­ally and reg­u­larly, that study­ing and learn­ing were bet­ter ways to a good life. Neither of my par­ents had fin­ished high school, but al­most every­one in my gen­er­a­tion gradu­ated from col­lege and went on to achieve in some way. My sis­ter Ruth and I achieved in aca­demia and aca­dem­ic re­search; a close cous­in, Robert Schakne, be­came a CBS re­port­er; his sis­ter Anne Schakne Har­ris be­came an ed­it­or at a ma­jor pub­lish­ing house. Oth­ers achieved in law. But there was more than that. As Re­uben Siegel did well, he kept in mind that oth­ers were not so for­tu­nate, be­com­ing one of the founders of the Hebrew Free Loan So­ci­ety, which to this day makes in­terest-free loans to small busi­nesses. In these very per­son­al ways, phil­an­thropy be­came part of my ex­ten­ded fam­ily tra­di­tion.

To his clear dis­ap­point­ment, my dad had no sons, but as I think back on it, my moth­er (who had no ar­tic­u­lated in­tel­lec­tu­al am­bi­tions of her own) and fath­er (who had no time for much be­sides work) en­cour­aged their four daugh­ters to fol­low their nat­ur­al in­terests wherever they took us. For ex­ample, while I loved my dolls and spent happy hours with girl­friends play­ing a game we called “house”, and my mom en­cour­aged that by sew­ing clothes for my dolls, my par­ents also bought me an erect­or set and “Tinker Toys”. I have clear memor­ies of be­ing called to come down to din­ner, but not want­ing to go un­til I figured out how to solve the prob­lem of bal­an­cing a top-heavy crane that I had con­struc­ted.

My three sis­ters were Helen, the old­est, and then Ruth, me and Ada. We lived in a large house in Lawrence, Long Is­land, but my fam­ily moved to New York City when I was 12 (be­cause the chances for find­ing hus­bands for four girls were deemed to be bet­ter in the city!). I at­ten­ded Ju­lia Rich­mond High School, a large in­ner city school for girls. After a semester at Ju­lia Rich­mond, I was ad­mit­ted to its hon­ors pro­gram, and school changed from be­ing rough and even dan­ger­ous every day to a won­der­ful place, with small classes, fine teach­ers and an ex­cel­lent learn­ing en­vir­on­ment. I made lifelong friends there. My high school edu­ca­tion in­cluded Lat­in, Shakespeare’s plays, and an ex­cel­lent course in Eu­c­lidean geo­metry (taught with ax­ioms and proofs and a sat­is­fy­ing QED when you reached the end). I re­mem­ber be­ing less ma­ture so­cially than most of my class­mates, but there must have been an at­mo­sphere of ba­sic tol­er­ance for dif­fer­ences, be­cause I re­call that the spir­it was ac­cept­ing and pos­it­ive. One of the girls in the geo­metry class that I loved (Jean Sam­met) be­came a com­puter sci­ent­ist who de­veloped the FORM­AC pro­gram­ming lan­guage in 1962, an­oth­er was the writer Ann Burstein. Oth­ers surely achieved too, but we lost touch with one an­oth­er per­man­ently be­cause of name changes after mar­riage.

College and the start of adult life

In those days the best col­leges in the US that ad­mit­ted wo­men were wo­men’s col­leges, and Helen, Ruth and I all gradu­ated from Barn­ard. Helen ma­jored in math, in fact she even won the Barn­ard math prize. Ruth’s in­terests were ini­tially phys­ics, but morph­ed to­ward plant physiology later in her life. Our young­est sis­ter, Ada, be­came a kinder­garten teach­er. Fol­low­ing my own in­terests (and prob­ably the ex­amples set by Ruth and Helen), I too ma­jored in math. I worked in in­dustry im­me­di­ately after gradu­at­ing from col­lege, rather than go­ing on to gradu­ate school, the tra­di­tion­al ca­reer for stu­dents with my tastes and tal­ents. Why? I was offered a job that in­volved an in­ter­est­ing math prob­lem, and the pos­sib­il­ity of solv­ing it in a leis­urely way, while earn­ing some money, was totally ap­peal­ing. While I was work­ing for the Poly­tech­nic Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Com­pany, I thought about the kind of work I might be equipped to do that would be more long-range. That was how it happened that a few years after gradu­at­ing from Barn­ard I earned an MA in Phys­ics at Columbia. While I en­joyed lab work, by the time I re­ceived my de­gree it had be­come plain that my in­terests were much more in math, even though the Phys­ics MA opened up a wider choice of jobs.

In this re­gard I want to point out that when I was a young adult, men and wo­men were ex­pec­ted to play tra­di­tion­al roles. The men were ex­pec­ted to sup­port a fam­ily, where­as wo­men were ex­pec­ted to keep the home fires burn­ing. Such ex­pect­a­tions were in­com­pat­ible with ca­reers for wo­men at the tra­di­tion­al age. There had been lively dis­cus­sions at the Lyttle fam­ily din­ner table about world af­fairs, ca­reers, and about the role wo­men might play in such mat­ters. One of my role mod­els had even been my dearly be­loved moth­er’s sis­ter, Alice Schakne, who was a real in­tel­lec­tu­al, un­like most of the wo­men in her gen­er­a­tion. However, even with Alice as a role mod­el, the un­der­ly­ing pres­sures were al­ways in the air. If a young wo­man wanted in­de­pend­ence from her fam­ily, the ac­cept­able way to gain it was at the same time to put your­self at risk of los­ing it — to get mar­ried, move away from your fam­ily, but then have chil­dren and start a new cycle of de­pend­ency. That risk was in the air, but it did not trouble me deeply.

In­deed, my older sis­ters Helen and then Ruth mar­ried in their early 20’s, and I wanted very much to fol­low in their foot­steps. It seemed to me that mar­riage would be a ba­sic de­cision about how my life would go, so that while I ob­vi­ously would need gradu­ate school and fur­ther train­ing to be­come a math­em­atician, that was a de­cision that could be put off, but the choice of a part­ner for life could not. Helen mar­ried “well”, as they said in those days, and ul­ti­mately de­voted her­self whole­heartedly and in­tel­li­gently to phil­an­thropy. As I men­tioned earli­er, that was part of the fam­ily tra­di­tion, and she evid­ently felt no angst at abandon­ing math. Ruth mar­ried a young law­yer, Robert Sat­ter, who even­tu­ally be­came a judge in the Con­necti­c­ut court sys­tem.

After ob­tain­ing my BA from Barn­ard, I was offered and ac­cep­ted a po­s­i­tion at PRD, the Poly­tech­nic Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Co., a com­pany that was af­fil­i­ated with Brook­lyn Poly­tech­nic Uni­versity, a nearby en­gin­eer­ing school. PRD was a com­mer­cial firm that made and sold mi­crowave fre­quency meters, most of its seni­or staff be­ing fac­ulty mem­bers at the uni­versity. It was ex­plained to me that the meters were cyl­indric­al cav­it­ies, each one of fixed ra­di­us \( r \), with each cyl­in­der hav­ing a fixed bot­tom disc and a top disc whose dis­tance \( h \) from the bot­tom disc could be var­ied. The res­on­ant fre­quency of a meter of ra­di­us \( r \) was a func­tion \( \phi_r(h) \). I was hired for a curve-fit­ting prob­lem — to re­place the drive that con­trolled \( h \) with a new drive that would be, for prac­tic­al pur­poses, lin­ear. Ex­amin­ing the re­sponse curves, I solved the prob­lem by in­ter­pret­ing \( h \) as the height of a lad­der slid­ing down a wall, with \( x \) the dis­tance of its base from the wall. The length of the lad­der and the ini­tial height were para­met­ers that could be ad­jus­ted to fit the data. That job ended with boxes filled with re­cal­ib­rated meters of all sizes, each with a lin­ear dial!

There were oth­er jobs like that one. I worked for PRD (above) and for the Tech­nic­al Re­search Group TRD, and for the W. L. Max­son Cor­por­a­tion. Think­ing that an MA in Phys­ics might open new doors, I be­came a gradu­ate stu­dent at Columbia, earn­ing a small amount of money as a Phys­ics Lab As­sist­ant at Barn­ard. That’s how it happened that I re­gistered in a Phys­ics lab course at Columbia, and at the same time audited a course at NYU taught by Pro­fess­or Richard Cour­ant. One of my fel­low stu­dents in both classes was Joseph Birman, then a young grad stu­dent in Chem­istry at Columbia, who had served in the US Navy near the end of World War II. Joe no­ticed me in both classes, and in­tro­duced him­self, and that’s how we got to­geth­er. We were mar­ried in 1950, and our mar­riage las­ted over 66 years. We were well suited to one an­oth­er in many ways. Ini­tially I was the main fam­ily wage earner, but when Joe re­ceived his PhD he quickly took over that role. We had three chil­dren, Ken­neth, De­borah and Carl-Dav­id. I took care of them when they were very young (there really were no al­tern­at­ives in those days) and worked two days a week; my clean­ing wo­man stayed with them dur­ing those two days. I fi­nally began gradu­ate stud­ies in Math­em­at­ics, ini­tially as a part-time stu­dent at NYU’s Cour­ant In­sti­tute shortly after Carl-Dav­id was born.

I re­ceived my PhD in May 1968, 20 years after gradu­at­ing from Barn­ard Col­lege, and began my first job, as a ten­ure-track As­sist­ant Pro­fess­or at Stevens In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy, an en­gin­eer­ing school on the banks of the Hud­son River in New Jer­sey. Ad­van­cing quickly, I was ap­poin­ted Pro­fess­or of Math­em­at­ics (with ten­ure) at Barn­ard-Columbia in 1974. While there were al­most no wo­men math­em­aticians in those days, “wo­men’s lib” was in the air and there were people who wanted to help (and some who didn’t like the idea of wo­men col­leagues at all). Among the math­em­aticians who helped me I men­tion Wil­helm Mag­nus, Ral­ph Fox, Dmitri Papakyriakoupoulous, John Stallings, Lip­man Bers and Sammy Ei­len­berg.

My sis­ter Ruth’s path was also wan­der­ing, but she too ul­ti­mately suc­ceeded in find­ing a rich ca­reer in aca­demia. After col­lege she was hired to a re­spons­ible po­s­i­tion at Bell Labs, but she lost that job when the men re­turned from World War II. Be­ing by nature a ser­i­ous thinker, while her four chil­dren were grow­ing up Ruth began ex­per­i­ments in her home garden on cir­ca­di­an rhythms she had no­ticed in plants. Her daugh­ter Shoshanna de­scribed this by say­ing “when we came home from school and the oven was go­ing we knew bet­ter than to ex­pect brownies, more likely it was mom ster­il­iz­ing dirt”. She earned her Ph.D. from U. Conn at Storrs, in bio­logy, at roughly the same time that I re­ceived my PhD from NYU. She was offered and ac­cep­ted a first class postdoc in the Plant Physiology De­part­ment at Yale. But then her ca­reer seemed to get stuck. Her ment­or and em­ploy­er was a Yale pro­fess­or, but their ideas about re­search dir­ec­tions did not al­ways agree, and she longed to ap­ply for her own grants. She fought that battle hard, but did not win it: the Yale ad­min­is­tra­tion was adam­ant, only fac­ulty mem­bers hold­ing an aca­dem­ic line could ap­ply for grants through Yale. Even­tu­ally she left Yale, and be­came a Pro­fess­or at Storrs, where she ment­ored many stu­dents and did fine work. Her life was cut short at the age of 68, after a battle with leuk­emia. The AMS Sat­ter Prize was es­tab­lished in her memory, with the first prize awar­ded in 1991.