Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10

Columns

Remembering Willy and Frank Moser – my twin uncles

L to R: Frank Moser, Manny Peris, Barbara Moser, Sid Stevens, Willy Moser on a visit to Sun Youth, circa 1990

My uncles Willy and Frank died within two months of each other, Frank in November in Jerusalem after a long battle with Parkinson’s and Willy, in February, after a stroke and several heart attacks. They were 81.

Frank and Barbara, 1954

My uncles were remarkable men. Given all their difficulties, they lived full lives until the end and I want to celebrate that. They were full of humour, wit, wisdom and love of family. Frank was a physicist and worked for Eastman Kodak in Rochester until he moved to Israel in the early 1970s and settled in Jerusalem, where he volunteered with students in the physics department at Tel Aviv University.

Like my father Leo, who died in 1970, Willy was a well-known and prolific mathematician. He taught at McGill for over 30 years and like my father, shared his passion with many young people, dazzling them with the magic of mathematics.

Laura and Robert Moser with Frank, Willy and Leo

When I was a young adult living in Israel, Frank was a second father to me. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, we drove up to the Golan Heights together to bring care packages, including cream cakes my aunt reminds me, to the soldiers. Frank introduced me to the father of my daughters. They learned Hebrew together in Haifa, or tried to. Uncle Frank and Aunty Ruth Joy became my parents in Israel. Frank was an incredibly witty, soft-spoken, loving uncle who listened without judgement. I know it’s a cliché but Frank was one in a million. Frank was a wonderful photographer. His photos were works of art.

L to R: Ruth Joy, Willy, Beryl and Frank

If Frank guided me through my early twenties, it was Willy who took on the role of dad when I arrived in Montreal in 1975. He and my Aunt Beryl became my Montreal parents, whom I shared with my cousins, Marla, Lionel and Paula. Willy was influential in my decision to start The Senior Times. He was “in on the name” and had lots of advice about articles. He was proud of my ability to jump in and publish that first issue, in which he was featured with his new grandson, Adam, in a story about being a grandparent. He was a master at crafting headlines.

What I will remember most was my uncle’s devotion to the brother he revered — my father, Leo, and his continual chronicling, organizing and publishing of my father’s mathematical work.

Willy and Frank, 2004

Willy gave exceptional and practical advice. He coached my daughter Amy, on the phone to LA, on buying her first car, telling her exactly how much to offer, when to walk away, when to come back. She followed his instructions to the letter and saved a couple thousand. He also influenced my decision to give up my car, detailing the cost of owning a car. I deduced I could travel to Europe every few months, take taxis every day and still come out on top economically. That was five years ago and I still live happily without a car. Atlas Taxi can attest to that!

Uncle Frank and Uncle Willy, I will miss you and thank you, my twin uncles, for the fatherly love you have shown me for 40 years.

In 1967, Willy was approached by the police to investigate the legality of games at Expo 67, and determine whether it was a game of chance as advertised. To read this exciting account, go to the “man of mathematics” on space.dawsoncollege.qc.ca

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Darwin, baboons, bassoons, & bobo the hobo

Mathematical Pie by William Moser Published in The Senior Times, April, 2001

J.E. Littlewood, one of the great mathematicians of the first half century, reported the following story about Charles Darwin.

Darwin had a theory that once in a while one should performa damn-fool experiment. It almost always fails, but when it does come off, it’s terrific. Darwin played the trombone to tulips. The result of this particular experiment was negative.

The Hungarian-American biochemist, Albert Von Szent-Gyorgyi (1893-1986) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries relating to cell respiration and to the composition of vitamin C.

I particularly like the following remark of his:

“Discovery consists in seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”

Now, a verse:

There once was a hairy baboon

Who always breathed down a bassoon

“For” he said, “it appears

That in billions of years

I shall certainly hit on a tune.” – A. Eddington

And another:

There was a young man from old Trinity

Who found the square root of infinity

While counting the digits

He was seized by the fidgets

So he chucked Math and took up Divinity.

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McGill Obituary of William Moser

William O. J. Moser (1927-2009) was born in Winnipeg and graduated in 1949 from the University of Manitoba, and obtained a Master’s degree in Mathematics in 1951 at the University of Minnesota.

Moser’s Ph.D. Thesis, written at the University of Toronto under H. S. M. Coxeter, evolved into the oft-cited standard Ergebnisse reference on combinatorial group theory (1957) known to generations as “Coxeter and Moser.” Before arriving at McGill he held faculty positions at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Manitoba. Much of his later seminal mathematical work was in discrete geometry, where, with Peter Brass and Janos Pach, he published in 2005 Research Problems in Discrete Geometry. Moser’s interest in problem solving extended far beyond this definitive monograph, and he was active for many years in provincial and national mathematics competitions for pre-university students, and in the publication for the Mathematical Association of America of Five Hundred Mathematical Challenges with E. Barbeau and M. Klamkin; with bawdy humour and other irreverence, problem solving was but one of the missions he shared with his older brother Leo Moser (1921-1970), who was also a mathematician.

Willy served as President (1973- 1975) and in other capacities in the Canadian Mathematical Congress – the predecessor to the Canadian Mathematical Society, and received their Distinguished Service Award in 2003. His experience in editing the Congress’s journals served him well subsequently in multiple capacities, including editing his friends’ writing – whether or not they requested it. Moser’s relations with colleagues were more brotherly than collegial. Typically one might find in his entourage a speed chess match, a peripatetic friend expounding latest discoveries and conjectures, and others enjoying the conversion to mathematics of the potent coffee Willy brewed for his academic family, all bathed in the pungent second-hand smoke of Willy’s cigar or pipe. He stubbornly remained active as an Emeritus Professor at McGill after his retirement in 1997, and after a subsequent, debilitating stroke. On receiving the CMS Distinguished Service Award in 2003, he addressed the audience in these terms:

Be generous and patient as teachers, be active in projects which benefit the mathematical community and, above all, have as long and as happy a mathematical life as I have had, and am still having.

Also published in Notes, Canadian Mathematical Society.

The William Moser Memorial Fund has been set up with the McGill math department to encourage young minds and to honour the Moser twins. Those wishing to donate can do it online or by contacting Elizabeth Mazurek, McGill Annual Fund, 1430 Peel St., Montreal, Qc, H3A 3T3, 514-398-8860.

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