Yandell, Benjamin H. 1951-2004

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YANDELL, Benjamin H. 1951-2004

(Ben Yandell)

PERSONAL: Born 1951, in Pasadena, CA; died of a heart attack August 25, 2004, in Pasadena, CA; married Janet Nippell (an editor and writer); children: Kate. Education: Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, B.S., 1973.

CAREER: Writer and poet.


(With Janet Nippell; under name Ben Yandell) Mostly on Foot: A Year in L.A., Floating Island Publications (Point Reyes Station, CA), 1989.

The Honors Class: Hilbert's Problems and Their Solvers, A. K. Peters (Natick, MA), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS: Benjamin H. Yandell was a mathematician-turned writer whose 2002 book, The Honors Class: Hilbert's Problems and Their Solvers, shine a biographical light on mathematicians and their struggles. Yandell studied mathematics at Stanford University and as a writer explored his fascination with the work of mathematician David Hilbert, who, in 1900, at the Second International Congress of Mathematicians, laid out twenty-three problems he felt would shape the course of twentieth-century mathematics. Hilbert's list of problems became the benchmark for innovative and creative mathematics, and solving one of these problems became a badge of success in the mathematical community; those who solved one were said to join the Honors Class of mathematicians. The list of problems includes those in algebra, number theory, geometry, physics, logic, and analysis; interestingly, it excludes probability and topology, two topics that ultimately informed much of the century's math advances.

From an interest in Hilbert, Yandell turned to the mathematicians who worked on and solved—by his reckoning—twenty of the problems. For Yandell, these people are as interesting as the problems they solved, and in The Honors Class the author relies heavily on biographical profile and anecdote. Reviewers responded warmly to this mixture of biography and mathematical analysis. Writing in the American Mathematical Monthly, Jeffrey L. Nunemacher found the work to be "a discursive, very readable book that will appeal strongly to both mathematicians and general-interest science readers." Nunemacher went on to call The Honors Class "a labor of love" and "one of the best popular books about mathematics and mathematicians written in the last ten years…. The combination of biography and careful but general mathematical explanation is difficult to carry off well for any mathematical writer. Yandell has done it in this book."

Reviewing The Honors Class in American Scientist, John McCleary explained that "Yandell's goal is to trace the fate of each problem, including the contribu-tions that let up to a solution and the solution itself." In doing so, McCleary noted, Yandell was free to fill in the background of many of the political events of the twentieth-century, including Nazism (Max Dehn, who solved the third problem escaped the Nazis) as well as the Stalinist Soviet Union, where Alexander Osipovich Gelfond, who solved the seventh problem, lived and worked. McCleary went on to observe that a further goal of Yandell's was to make "mathematics a living subject whose practitioners are at times heroic, painfully ordinary or even crabby." British Journal for the History of Science contributor I. Grattan-Guinness commented on Yandell's "engaging and sometimes amusing style," while also noting "a few gaffes or dubious statements" in the text.

A more positive evaluation came from Paul J. Campbell, writing in Mathematics that The Honors Class "is a book that will delight both [mathematical and non-mathematical readers] and provide an overview of important contributions of twentieth-century mathematics." Similarly, Fernando Q. Gouvea, reviewing the book in Science, observed that "Yandell uses the problems mostly to paint a portrait of the mathematics community and the people who inhabit it." Gouvea further commented that reading Yandell's book is a "pleasant way to learn more about mathematicians and what they do." Writing in Nature, W. Timothy Gowers praised the book for being "thoroughly researched and highly entertaining … a vivid history," and Elizabeth Sourbut noted in New Scientist that Yandell "deftly combines discussions of the problems themselves with biographies of the people who solved them." Sourbut concluded that The Honors Class is a "rich tale."

Yandell, who died in 2004, was also the author of a travel book and memoir, coauthored with his wife, Janet Nippell. In Mostly on Foot: A Year in L.A., the couple records walks they took in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, blending description, travel, and personal memoir. At the time of his death, Yandell, who also wrote poetry, was working on a book centered on algebra.



Nippell, Janet, and Ben Yandell, Mostly on Foot: A Year in L.A., Floating Island Publications (Point Reyes Station, CA), 1989.


American Mathematical Monthly, June-July, 2003, Jeffrey L. Nunemacher, review of The Honors Class: Hilbert's Problems and Their Solvers, p. 554.

American Scientist, May, 2002, John McCleary, review of The Honors Class, p. 289.

British Journal for the History of Science, March, 2004, I. Grattan-Guinness, review of The Honors Class, p. 112.

Mathematics, April, 2002, Paul J. Campbell, review of The Honors Class, p. 153.

Mathematics Teacher, October, 2002, Virginia McGlone, review of The Honors Class, p. 553.

Nature, June 13, 2002, W. Timothy Gowers, review of The Honors Class, p. 693.

New Scientist, March 9, 2002, Elizabeth Sourbut, review of The Honors Class, p. 51.

Science, May 3, 2002, Fernando Q. Gouvea, review of The Honors Class, p. 853.



Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2004, p. B11.