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Photo of John Kemeny from (where else?) wikipedia
Monday, April 29, 2013

The most famous NH mathematician: Is it actually Dartmouth's John Kemeny?

In my memorial piece about Ken Appel of four-color theory fame, noted in earlier posts, I call him the most famous mathematician ever associated with New Hampshire. I was a little hesitant about that hyperbole, and sure enough, was called out on it by a reader, who wrote this excellent comment at the bottom of my column. I'll let him do the talking:

I'm not sure I can agree with your characterization of Dr. Appel as "the most famous mathematician ever associated with New Hampshire". Dr. Appel may indeed have achieved the most famous mathematical result of anyone associated with New Hampshire, but in terms of personal fame I think that honor instead goes to Dr. John G. Kemeny. His mathematical contributions are not as well known as the four color theorem, but they were still quite significant -- and most of them were actually published while he lived in New Hampshire. His fame, though, stems not from a particular proof, but from the fact that he was that he served as President of Dartmouth College from 1970 until 1981, that he continued to both teach and publish papers in mathematics during those years, and on top of that he chaired the Presidential Commission on Three Mile Island. And that was on top of being the co-inventor of the BASIC programming language and the Dartmouth Time Sharing System, which made him an early pioneer in academic computing and a thought leader in the introduction of computing into the broader higher education curriculum.

He makes an excellent argument. Incidentally, in my column I note that my math department shunned computers in 1976 - and the computers I was talking about were part of the Dartmouth Time Sharing System mentioned above.