9/9/99 at SIAM

October 1, 1999


SIAM Technical Director Bill Kolata, whose conference activities include an occasional turn as a minisyposium speaker. He's shown here in Toronto, where he gave a talk titled "Rating Climbs in the Tour de France."

SIAM marked 9/9/99 not with a computer catastrophe but with a celebration---of technical director Bill Kolata's ten-year anniversary at SIAM. After listening to executive director Jim Crowley's summary of what he's been up to in his ten years at SIAM-mostly having to do with the vastly expanded conference program---Kolata offered his own thoughts on the day.

Since 9/9/99 was not the exact date of his anniversary, he had done some thinking about the possible significance of the choice. Noticing that it was also the first time since 9/999 that a date contained five 9's, he decided to look into the earlier milestone year. As he told a bemused SIAM staff, assembled on a rainy afternoon to eat some cake and congratulate him on his anniversary, the year 999 was not without significance for SIAM---it was the year of the election of Pope Sylvester II, "the first and perhaps the only pope who could have been a SIAM member."

It seems that this pope, Gerbert d'Aurillac (c. 955-1003), who was also the first French pope, had distinguished himself early for his ability in mathematics. Later, after several years as the tutor of the son of the emperor Otto I, he was given leave to go to Rheims to study advanced logic. It was at the cathedral in Rheims that Gerbert secured his reputation as an applied mathematician, designing an organ that would have constant pressure, supplied by water power. In addition to the extended steady level of sound, Gerbert's organ had pipes that were matched mathematically, making its harmonics superior to anything heard before in the West.

Also at Rheims, Gerbert, who had mastered the Arabic system of numerals, pursued a long-standing interest in the abacus. Having marked out the floor of the nave of the cathedral in the form of a giant abacus and made a number of large discs to serve as beads, he gathered 64 members of the cathedral school, to whom he called out instructions for moving the discs from the organ loft. He was thus able to compute with more precision than had previously been possible. You see, Kolata told the staff in conclusion, Gerbert was not only an applied mathematician, but a computational mathematician to boot.

Here's to ten more, Bill, and maybe a posthumous honorary SIAM membership for Gerbert!


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