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My Caltech calculus professor, Tom Apostol, passed away yesterday May 8th 2016. When I arrived in his Math 1b class in the Fall of 1990 I thought, like most of my classmates, that I already knew calculus. I may have known it but I didn’t understand it. Apostol taught me the understanding part.
Apostol’s calculus books, affectionally called “Tommy I” and ‘Tommy II” were not just textbooks for students to memorize but rather mathematical wisdom and beauty condensed into a pair of books intended to transform grade-obsessed freshmen and sophomores into thinking human beings. Most of all, Apostol emphasized the idea that fundamental to mathematics is how one thinks about things, not just what one is thinking about. One of his iconic examples of this was the ice-cream-cone-proof that the focal property of an ellipse is a consequence of its definition as a section of a cone. Specifically, taking as the definition of an ellipse a plane curve obtained by intersecting an inclined plane with a cone
the goal is to both define the two foci, and then to derive the focal point property as illustrated below:
Apostol demonstrated the connection between conic sections and their foci via a proof and picture of Dandelin. His explanation, which I still remember from my freshman year in college, is beautiful (the excerpt below is from his linear algebra book):
Apostol didn’t invent Dandelin’s spheres but he knew they were “the right way” to think about conic sections, and he figured out “the right way” for each and every one of his explanations. His calculus books are exceptional for their introduction of integration before differentiation, his preference for axiomatic rather than mechanistic definition (e.g. of determinants) and his exercises that are “easy” when the material is understood “in the right way”. His course had a profound influence on my approach not only to mathematics, but to all of my learning in both the sciences and humanities.
One of Apostol’s signature traditions was his celebration of Gauss’ birthday. His classes were always filled with mathematical treats, but on April 30th every year he would hide a cake in the classroom before the students arrived and would serve an edible treat that day instead. Gauss turned 239 just last week. This seems to be a timely moment to take note of that prime number (Apostol was a number theorist) and to eat a slice of cake for Gauss, Apostol, and those who change our lives.