Opinion 71: Why Are There So Many Outstanding Fifty-Year-Old Israeli Combinatorialists (and Computer Scientists, and Physicists and ...)

By Doron Zeilberger

Written: Feb. 17, 2006.

                Dedicated to Noga Alon, on his 50th Birthday

I can't believe that the   י ל ד   פ ל א   (wunderkind) of Israeli combinatorics, and more generally, Israeli mathematics, and more generally, Israeli science, is turning 50 today. Unlike the stereotypical aging "wonder-child" for whom the wonder has passed but he or she remained a "child", Noga's wonder is still as strong as ever, and luckily for us, he remained a "child" in the best sense of the word: still full of curiosity and in spite of his world-class eminence, as unpretentious and down-to-earth as ever.

But while Noga is definitely an outstanding 50-year-old Israeli combinatorialist, he is not the only one! If you interpret combinatorics to include computer science and physics, then a very partial list of ca. 50-year-old great combinatorialists include

A few years younger are Ron Adin, Ron Donagi, Ofer Gabber, Oded Goldreich and Roy Meshulam. Six years younger is Oded Schramm, 2001 Salem Prize winner and Plenary speaker at ICM 2006. Ten years younger is the great knotter Dror Bar-Natan. Amongst the sixty-year-olds one can find the great mathematical physicist Michael Aizenman.

The enigma of explaining this "concentration of measure" was solved the other day, as I was cleaning up my attic.

I found some old issues of "gilyonot lematematika" (archived here thanks to the efforts of Gadi Aleksandrowicz, from the Technion) a mathematical quarterly for "the learning youth and amateurs" edited by the late Joseph Gillis, from the years 1970-1977. In addition to fascinating articles, mostly written by Gillis, but also by teenage readers (and in one case [Ron Donagi] by a pre-teen) it had a large problem section. Each problem was assigned a number of points (according to difficulty), and readers were invited to send-in solutions. There were no prizes offered, the only reward was being listed in the "List of Solvers" in the next issue. In 1969, Joe Gillis also started to organize the Israeli Math Olympiad.

All the people I mentioned above either won some prizes in the Math Olympiad or were high scorers in the problem section. Often both!

For example, our Birthday boy, Noga Alon was ranked first in the 1974 Olympiad, and fourth in 1973 (Amir Ban, Deep Junior's co-coach was top then, and Doron Gepner ranked second). The list of solvers of v.5 no. 2 (that appeared in v.5 no. 3) had 35 names, including

The list of solvers of v.5 no. 3 (that appeared in v.5 no. 4) also had 35 names, including

I am sure that this is not a coincidence, and that Joe Gillis's gilyonot and the Math Olympiad were decisive factors in turning these impressionable teenagers into avid problem-solvers, that made them into world-class combinatorialists (in the extended sense). One can also "blame" the pioneering "computer world" column written by Nahman Givoli that started to appear in the gilyonot in 1973.

Joe Gillis was a great mathematical researcher, but I am sure that he would have agreed with me that his implicit impact, via his "outreach activities", on today's mathematics, and especially combinatorics and computer science, is much larger than the impact of his research contributions, and for that matter, much larger than the impact of any single mathematician of the 20th century.

Kids nowadays, of course, have many more distractions, and less attention span, but one can try to emulate the Gillis example, adapted to today's culture. Also, it would be nice if the Weizmann Institute's Science Teaching Department would scan all the back issues, and publish, on-line, an English translation of Joe Gillis's gilyonot lematematika. Maybe some future Noga Alon will get hooked!

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