Mordukh Primak: The Man Who Really Loved Optimization (and Many Other Things)

By Doron Zeilberger

Department of Mathematics, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122, USA.

[Also Appeared in Temple University Mathematical Monthly, v. 2(1999), Issue 5, 24 Feb., 1999.]

Written: Feb. 20, 1999.

The wonderful medium of E-Mail also has its downside. It delivers bad news so fast, without any preambles. Like all of us, I got the message, on Feb. 17, 1999, that Mordukh Primak just died. This was really such a shock. Mordukh was more alive than any of us. So full of life and love of mathematics. Of course, we all love mathematics, but in most of us it does not show so much. In Mordukh you can sense his genuine enthusiasm, and his brilliant, creative mind. He had such a knack for expressing things in the simplest possible way (but not simpler), and he was such a brilliant lecturer. I know that he was also a great teacher, perhaps better than any of us.

I will never forget his brilliant, lucid, and very stimulating lectures. Erdos called lecturing `preaching', but most of us, Erdos included, are pretty bad preachers. Now, Mordukh was really a great preacher. In fact he did not lecture, but almost shouted. And the math was so beautiful, and deceptively simple. It was thanks to him that I first learned about the Nash Equilibrium. He had a very elegant approach to it.

Another lecture that I remember less vividly, but that nevertheless was very stimulating, was his extension of work of Don Newman, that lead later to their joint article.

He was also a very careful reader. He read very carefully my article with Aaron Robertson about Schur triples, and found a gap! And that was after the paper has already appeared. Luckily, Aaron could fix it, but it wasn't easy, and it made the paper much longer. More important, he had a very novel approach to the same problem, that could, and should, lead to far-reaching generalizations. Too bad that we'll never see them.

He also had beautiful stories to tell. He told me about Falikman, the co-prover of the van der Waerden conjecture, and how, mysteriously, his proof was delayed publication by the referee, and when it was finally accepted for publication an independent proof was also published, by Egorichev. This could not have happened nowadays, when priority can be easily established by submitting to the Los Alamos XXX archives.

This is not the time to blame anyone, but I believe that Temple University's Math Dept. should have hired him as a full-time, tenured, professor, and overlook the, usually wise, policy, not to hire anyone who started out as a visiting professor. But, then again, we got a great deal. For the price of a visiting appointment, and later even only of an adjunct position, we got someone who did the work of at least five full professors. He almost single-handedly lead the Operations Research and Optimization program, and, largely thanks to him, kept the applied math program going.

At the same time, his research was flourishing, and he had more than fifty articles mentioned in Math Reviews, and probably many others.

And in addition, he was such a nice person! I am sure that none of us will ever forget him, and all our memories are very fond.