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Irving Adler

September 27, 2012 4 comments

Irving Adler changed my life. He wrote The Giant Golden Book of Mathematics, which my parents gave me on my eighth birthday. I loved math, but I hadn’t yet decided to make it my life’s work. The book opened my eyes to the wider world of mathematics and its history, after which there was no turning back.

Adler died last Saturday. Excerpts below from the NYT obituary give some sense of his extraordinary life. I wish I had written to thank him.

Irving Adler, who wrote dozens of books on the elegant essentials of science and math, almost all of them directed toward capturing the curiosity of children and young adults, died on Saturday in Bennington, Vt. He was 99.

The cause was a stroke, his daughter, Peggy Adler, said.

Mr. Adler joined the American Communist Party in 1935. In 1952, at the height of the Red Scare, when he was chairman of the math department at Straubenmuller Textile High School on West 18th Street in Manhattan, he was subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigating Communist influence in schools. Invoking his Fifth Amendment rights, he refused to answer questions.

Mr. Adler became one of 378 New York City teachers ousted under New York State’s Feinberg Law, which made it illegal for teachers to advocate for the overthrow of the government by force.

The United States Supreme Court upheld his dismissal in 1952 (Adler v. Board of Education), but declared the Feinberg Law unconstitutional 15 years later.

[snip]

The wonders that Mr. Adler would illuminate in his 87 books — many written with and illustrated by his late wife Ruth Relis Adler — are evident in their titles. Among them are “How Life Began” (1957), “The Stars: Steppingstones Into Space” (1958), “Thinking Machines” (1961) and “Inside the Nucleus” (1963).

[snip]

Irving Adler was born in Manhattan on April 27, 1913, one of five children of Marcus and Celia Kress Adler, immigrants from what is now Poland. His father first worked as a house painter and later sold ice, coal, wood, seltzer and beer.

Irving was an outstanding student, entering Townsend Harris High School at 11 and graduating from City College with a degree in mathematics at 18. Soon after “he was teaching high school students that were older then him,” his daughter said.

Categories: Books, Math, Obituary