At a conference in 1967 1organized a beach hike in which Raoul Bott nearly drowned. Afterwards, Bott sometimes joked that Smale tried to kill him. When Bott said Smale was his “worst” student, it was not in the mathematical sense but in the moral sense. Here is Smale’s version of the event.
Raoul often introduced me with the words “Steve was my first student” and then added with great emphasis “and my worst!” He described our relationship (often tumultuous) in his talk2 at the conference for my sixtieth birthday. Raoul says there, “Steve tried to drown me,” as he describes one of our excursions.
It is true that I miscalculated the timing and dangers of an incoming tide at Taylor’s Point on the Olympic Peninsula. It was at a 1967 Battelle conference in Seattle on general relativity that I put together a group of about a dozen people for a three-day hike, camping along the ocean beach. Toward the end of the trip we came to (the notorious) Taylor’s Point and had to make a decision. My wife, Clara; daughter, Laura; and a few others decided on a detour. I convinced the remainder, including Raoul; his wife, Phil; his daughter, Renee; [◊] that he was thinking, “This is how one drowns.” In fact, we all survived (my backpack was lost to the seas). Raoul also writes that, after an excursion with me, he often got on his knees to give thanks: “Back home again and still alive!”, his wife (at that time), Beth; and my son, Nat (ten years old), that my tide calculations would justify an attempt to take the sea route. Success was at hand when I looked ahead to see Raoul being battered against the cliffs by the heavy sea. He writes in
Raoul Bott and I were close friends for over five decades. Already in 1953 we would meet for weekly lunches, as I was taking his class in advanced algebraic topology. I have often spoken of how it was Bott who started me on the road to serious mathematics. He was a great teacher and a great inspiration.
There were sometimes divergences in our approaches to mathematics as well as divergences in which fields we worked in. Very early on, Raoul seemed a bit upset with my working in ordinary differential equations. That subject was for those who found partial differential equations too difficult. Moreover, at that time Raoul was not too crazy about even p.d.e. In Morse theory he preferred using finite-dimensional approximations, in contrast to my using infinite-dimensional manifolds (Palais–Smale).
The last extended time we spent together was on the occasion of his one- to two-month visit to the City University of Hong Kong at my invitation. He and Phil were still drinking martinis with Clara and me after all those years. He was redoing in his own framework my joint result with Mike Shub on the number of real zeros of a system of polynomial equations. Later I saw his writeup with.
Living in the world of Raoul Bott was a wonderful part of my life.