Today is 3/14 – national Pi day because the month and day match 3.14 – the first three numbers of π.
For kicks, I searched for the symbol π in ArchiveGrid because the term pi as a keyword retrieved a list of unrelated results that seemed as endless as the number itself. But π retrieved a more rational set: eight matches with direct links to online finding aids.
One finding aid at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at University of Texas caught my eye because a piece of the display text read “Notes on transcendence of π,” which sounded profound. Mathematically, pi is a prominent example of a transcendental number, and I hoped to find a more philosophically transcendent connection between pi and something, or someone, in ArchiveGrid.
And I did. Read on:
The finding aid is for a collection of papers William T. Reid accrued between 1925, when he was an undergraduate student in Texas, and 1977, when he died in Texas after a lifelong career in mathematics.
Reid was a mathematics professor at University of Chicago from 1931 to 1944 and at Northwestern University from 1944 to 1959. During those years in the Chicago area, Reid would have known a fellow mathematician, Ernst Hellinger. We know this because in Reid’s collection are materials related to Hellinger, a German mathematician whose career for 29 years as a university professor in Germany ended when the Nazi regime removed him and other Jewish mathematicians and scientists from German universities. Later Hellinger was arrested and spent six weeks in the Dachau concentration camp until a job which friends arranged for him at Northwestern allowed him to emigrate. He joined the faculty in 1939 and died in 1950.
By the time Hellinger was safe from the effects of World War II, Reid’s involvement for the United States in the war had started. According to the finding aid’s biographical note, “During World War II he served as consultant in mathematics to the Army Air Corps and served in the Pre-Meteorology program. He was chairman of the subcommittee on examinations of the War Policy Committee of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America.”
In Reid’s papers are correspondence about Hellinger’s death and biographical and memorial items, a photograph of Hellinger, manuscripts, notes, seminars, letters, reprints, and a few other remnants of his career.
One remnant is Hellinger’s “Notes on transcendence of π; Bericht über die Entwicklung seit 1933 und über den gegenwärtigen Stand des Mathematischen Seminars der Universität Frankfurt, 1949.” (Via Google Translate: “Report on developments since 1933 and on the current state of the Mathematics Department of the University Frankfurt, 1949.”)
Such findings leave more questions that access to these primary sources could answer. What was the friendship between Reid and Hellinger like? Did Hellinger ever return to Germany following World War II? Both pi and war can be described as irrational – what did Hellinger think?