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Celebratio Mathematica

Raoul H. Bott

Rodolfo Gurdian

Ro­dolfo Gur­d­i­an was one of Raoul Bott’s room­mates when they were un­der­gradu­ates at Mc­Gill. The ima­gin­ary chick­en-steal­ing in­cid­ent in this art­icle is a ref­er­ence to a real chick­en leg in­cid­ent they ex­per­i­enced to­geth­er at Mont Tremb­lant, re­coun­ted in [◊].1

What fol­lows is an ac­count of some of the mis­chief that Raoul Bott and I car­ried out dur­ing our days at Mc­Gill.

Figure 2. Raoul Bott (left) in the 1930s.
Bott Family Collection.

I met Raoul in 1941, when we were in our first year at Mc­Gill Uni­versity. Both of us lived in Douglas Hall, a stu­dent dorm­it­ory of the uni­versity, but we were in dif­fer­ent apart­ments. He paid at­ten­tion to me be­cause I got a high­er grade in tri­go­no­metry. He also no­ticed that I played the gui­tar, and I ap­pre­ci­ated his pi­ano play­ing.

The fol­low­ing year we shared an apart­ment, to­geth­er with Frazer Farlinger, a stu­dent in medi­cine. Raoul ma­jored in elec­tric­al en­gin­eer­ing and I in chem­ic­al en­gin­eer­ing. The dif­fer­ence among us was that Frazer and I had to study very hard, while Raoul didn’t. He used to say that at­tend­ing the lec­tures was suf­fi­cient for him, since elec­tric­al en­gin­eer­ing was a very lo­gic­al sub­ject. His marks were sat­is­fact­ory but could have been much bet­ter if he had only worked harder.

I met Os­kar and Celia Pfef­fer, his charm­ing step­par­ents. Real­iz­ing that they were not very well off, I called Raoul’s at­ten­tion to the fact that, be­ing so tal­en­ted in math­em­at­ics, he could eas­ily ob­tain a schol­ar­ship by study­ing just a little more. I think I in­flu­enced him, be­cause he im­proved his grades and be­came one of the best stu­dents in the class. In his last years at Mc­Gill, I be­lieve he did ob­tain a schol­ar­ship.

Figure 3. Rodolfo Gurdian and Raoul Bott as undergraduates at McGill, c. 1942.
Bott Family Collection.

Room­ing to­geth­er, we be­came close friends. We loved to make mis­chief. On Sat­urdays we used to go to the movies, of­ten to a theat­er called The Sys­tem. Buy­ing just one tick­et, we could watch three movies in a row. Al­though the tick­et price was low, both of us be­ing broke, we found a “sys­tem” to sneak in­to The Sys­tem without pay­ing by tak­ing ad­vant­age of the fact that only one per­son was in charge of the theat­er’s two en­trances. One of the en­trances gave ac­cess to the up­per floor through a wooden stair­case, and the oth­er went to the first floor. The trick we de­vised was for one of us to talk to the tick­et clerk, while the oth­er would dis­tract him by run­ning up­stairs and mak­ing a lot of noise. As the tick­et clerk fol­lowed the noise­maker, the oth­er one took ad­vant­age of the situ­ation to sneak in­to the theat­er’s first floor. Of course, once we were in, it was dif­fi­cult for the tick­et clerk to find us, be­cause we sat in the first avail­able seats, feign­ing to be reg­u­lar cus­tom­ers.

Dur­ing the sum­mer months every en­gin­eer­ing stu­dent was re­quired to work to get some prac­tic­al ex­per­i­ence. Since Douglas Hall was closed for the sum­mer, we ren­ted a room to­geth­er near the uni­versity. Raoul was six foot two, and I just un­der five foot six. So you can ima­gine what a strange-look­ing pair we made! One sum­mer Sunday we de­cided on a prank. Raoul put on his gray and red bath­robe and a turban and armed him­self with a small dag­ger. I put on my red short pants and a green T-shirt and car­ried a tam­bour­ine. When Raoul went out to the street, I fol­lowed, play­ing the tam­bour­ine and dan­cing in circles around him. People in the street were shocked. Sud­denly, Raoul ap­proached an old lady and threatened her with the dag­ger. When she star­ted scream­ing, we ran like hell, real­iz­ing that the joke and the fun were get­ting out of hand.

We used to talk about our fu­ture ca­reers. I told him that, due to my fa­cil­ity with money, I would ded­ic­ate my­self to busi­ness, which, in fact, I suc­cess­fully achieved in life. He joked that, since I would be­come a wealthy man while he, as a pro­fess­or, would be very poor, even­tu­ally he would be forced to come to Costa Rica to seek my help. Our first meet­ing would be in the back­yard of my house, where he, out of hun­ger, would be steal­ing my chick­ens. Find­ing a thief in my back­yard, I would come out with a gun. Upon see­ing me, Raoul would shout, “Please, Ro­dolfo, don’t shoot. It’s me, Raoul, your old friend.” By that time, I would have be­come an in­sens­it­ive wealthy man, so I would shout back, “Of course, I re­cog­nize you,” and would shoot him dead any­way. One reas­on we be­came good friends might have been that, dur­ing our child­hood, we both en­gaged in sim­il­ar mis­chief. Moreover, Lat­in Amer­ic­ans may have more in com­mon with Europeans than with North Amer­ic­ans. So we en­joyed mak­ing pranks to­geth­er.