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Subject: The duties of John von Neumann's assistant
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Date: 2018-02-18T23:52:37
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The following is one of my favorite excerpts; I typed it in and have carried it around for 25 years. It appears on pp.220–221 of Edgar R. Lorch, Szeged in 1934, American Mathematical Monthly, vol. 100, #3, pp.219–230.

All of us Fellows were terrified what would happen to us if we couldn't locate a spot for next year. At this time the political super-potentates of the mathematical scene were centered in Princeton, N.J., where the Institute of Advanced Study had recently been established. The School of Mathematics was its leading school. There were about five mathematics professors at the Institute. In order to further distinguish them from ordinary mortals teaching at Columbia, Yale, or other universities, each professor had an assistant. There was tremendous variation in the duties of these assistants. It was traditional belief that Einstein's assistant did nothing. The only requirement for him was to be a Jewish exile from Nazi Germany. Hermann Weyl's assistant had normal duties: preparing in mimeographed form his professor's lectures on group theory. I cannot imagine what Alexander's or Veblen's assistants did — probably not much.

In early spring these potentates got together, counted up the mathematical plums to be handed out for the year, and made a list of the available talent who constituted the target space on which these plums were to be mapped. Then they sent the customary letters to the candidates: a three-paragraph personal letter to the candidates who had been hit, and a one-paragraph note of non-success to the poor souls who did not make it. One day I learned that one of my friends had received his letter — a good one. I gingerly went home, and sure enough, there was a letter from the Institute. The type-print covered the whole page — success! I would be able to live another year.

The letter was really exciting. I was being offered the job of assistant to John von Neumann! I had heard him lecture several times. He was brilliant, spoke very fast, his English was quite fluent, he made remarkably few errors.

I made a trip to Princeton and met with Veblen, who was running the Institute. “What,” asked I, “are the duties of an assistant to Professor von Neumann?” Veblen answered with a mixture of surprise and disdain, that a mere private second class should ask such a question about a four star general. His answer staggered me. Here were the four principal duties of von Neumann's assistant:

  1. To attend von Neumann's lectures on operator theory on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, take copious notes, complete unfinished proofs, see them through the secretarial jungle, and promptly circulate them to all American university libraries. This task alone was consuming the entire energies of a younger person, who had to be very sharp, fast, clever, and tough. These notes ran to over 600 pages.

  2. To be von Neumann's assistant as Editor of the Annals of Mathematics. This meant reading through every manuscript accepted for publication, underlining Greek letters in red and German letters in green, and circling italics. Also writing in the margins all necessary instructions to printers. The following anecdote illustrates the hazards of being editorial assistant of the Annals in the early thirties. A manuscript was submitted by the brilliant Soviet mathematician, Lev Pontryagin. Since paper was then exceptionally scarce in the Soviet Union, Pontryagin had taken wrapping paper, torn it into appropriate-sized pieces, and gone to work on his typewriter. Unfortunately, Pontryagin was blind. The wrapping paper was torn unevenly, and a good portion of the words and symbols in the margins were missing. No matter. The Annals editorial assistant retyped the paper, supplying all the missing symbols. What a hero!

  3. To go once a week to the printers of the Annals of Mathematics in Baltimore in order to instruct them in the art of typesetting mathematical symbols with subscripts, superscripts, subsubscripts, etc. The Annals of Mathematics had been printed in Hamburg, Germany by the firm of Lutke and Wolk. In view of increasing anti-Semitism under Hitler, the German connection was given up in favor of printing in the United States. But no American printer had ever before set up mathematical symbols! They were complete illiterates. Solution: Let von Neumann's assistant teach them!

  4. To translate into English von Neumann's numerous 100-page papers. Now that von Neumann was a professor in an American institute, it was thought that his papers should appear in English, not German. Since von Neumann was provided with an assistant, it was natural that the assistant should do this.

You may recall that this was extracted from an article titled Szeged in 1934.

That is because the author, Lorch, decided that he was not cut out for the job, and fled to Hungary.