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Ken Ribet’s love note from Serge Lang

January 3, 2012
This is a guest post from Ken Ribet, a story about one of my favorite people, Serge Lang. Crossposted from Facebook.
There’s a long story about this page, and I might as well tell it here. I uploaded this image because one of my Facebook friends asked me about it yesterday; she had heard mention of it at the MSRI, but the story that she heard was — how shall I put it — not completely accurate.Best to tell it as I remember it…

I took at graduate algebra course at Brown when I was an undergraduate. I bought a copy of Lang’s “Algebra,” 3rd edition around that time. It was the bible of graduate algebra, and I suppose that it still is. When I was at Harvard, I studied very hard for the written qualifying exam that we sat for at the end of our first year of graduate work. I spent months mastering the core material in algebra, topology and analysis. I got a little frustrated by Lang’s style and wrote the comment that you see in black ink. Years later, Serge had my office in Princeton while I was away in Paris. As usual, he consulted his own books, and he found my comment. He added his own (bottom of the page) and told me about it when I returned to the US. We both had a good laugh.

I was amazed, years later, when a German mathematician asked me about this page when we were at the Canadian number theory meeting in Vancouver — this must have been 20 years ago. How did the guy know? Serge or I must have talked, and word had gotten around.


I made this image in July, 2001 by pointing my first digital camera at the page and pressing the shutter. Serge was in town, and I told him that I wanted to link this image to the web page for the graduate algebra course (Math 250A) that I was about to teach. That way the students could see it. “Of course!” As the semester progressed, mathematicians around the world found out about the link on my web page and began forwarding the URL to their friends. One day Serge phoned me in my office: “You mean anyone in the world can see this? Take it down!!” So I did.

Categories: guest post
  1. Deane
    January 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    It would be great if you could figure out a way to post all the comments from Facebook, too.


    • January 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm

      Yeah they’re great. Maybe I can link to them, I’ll check it out.


  2. Greg
    October 19, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    I was in Ken Ribet’s office one time when the phone rang. Ken answered and said, here, I have a student here for you to talk to, handed me the phone, and left the office. It was Serge Lang at the other end. We spoke for probably 10 or 15 minutes, and he ended up sending me a copy of just about every book he’s written (that I know of). We spoke on the phone every few days for about a month, until he gave me his TEST and I told him I thought the question was worded unfairly and refused to answer it the way he wanted me to. Then he yelled at me for about ten minutes, and we never spoke again. But I still have the books.


  3. Frank Cannonito
    September 7, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    I was a student at Columbia taking a general topology course from Kolchin. Lang burst into the room and Kolchin chased him out. Lang then climbed in through the transom. That’s how I learned mathematics was not deadly serious stuff afterall.


  1. January 4, 2012 at 3:04 pm
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