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Listen or download interview (mp3, 27 minutes, 25MB)
Ron Graham grew up poor and never spent more than a year of his childhood in the same school. Ever the "new kid," he didn’t fit in and didn’t finish high school. He could have become a stereotype or a statistic, but a love of mathematics led him along a different path. He became one of the world’s foremost mathematicians instead.
A Ford Foundation scholarship enabled Graham to enroll in the University of Chicago at 15. He later studied at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Alaska, from which he graduated with a degree in physics. He earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Berkeley in 1962 and spent the next 37 years at AT&T Bell Labs in New Jersey, tackling the formidable math problems that come with the territory of routing millions of calls and connections each day.
His work at Bell Labs gave rise to worst-case analysis theory in scheduling, and helped lay the groundwork for the now-popular field of computational geometry. It also ignited interest in an obscure branch of discrete mathematics called Ramsey theory, which deals with the underlying order in apparently disordered situations. For his contributions to these fields, the American Mathematical Society awarded Graham the Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2003.
Graham is also an accomplished trampolinist and juggler, and once served as president of the International Jugglers Association. Ron Graham was elected to the National Academy of Sciences more than 20 years ago, and served as treasurer of the NAS Council from 1996 to 2008. He holds the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Chair in mathematics and computer science at the University of California, San Diego.
Graham recalls his nomadic childhood, during which his parents traveled frequently from his birthplace to the shipyards of the South to find work. He attends a new school each year missing some grades in the process until at 15 he enrolls in the University of Chicago.
After three years in the school’s Great Books program, he transfers to the University of California at Berkeley for his scientific education, and there encounters another interruption: the draft. In hopes of having more control over his military assignment, Graham decides to enlist, and soon finds himself in the Air Force in Alaska.
In 1958, he graduates from the University of Alaska and returns to Berkeley to complete his Ph.D. Immediately after, Graham joins Bell Labs, where he engages in interdisciplinary math research that wouldn’t have been possible in a traditional academic setting, he says.
He remembers two teachers who encouraged his curiosity about math and innate eye for patterns, and then reflects on the philosophical links between all the activities he’s mastered. Math, computer programming, gymnastics and juggling all combine elements of "control, patterns, and unbounded challenge," he argues, and all reveal the secret order in what appears chaotic or random. Those same qualities draw him to Ramsey theory.
Discussing the nature of math, Graham describe it as one of few sciences that deal directly with the infinite and that can offer something akin to absolute truth. He shares his belief that math exists independently of culture but is still poorly understood because human brains did not evolve to take on mathematical problems. They evolved "to keep us from being eaten, tell us where the berries are, and to stay out of the rain," he quips. Young, inexperienced mathematicians often stand a better chance of solving hard problems, he says, because they don’t yet have preconceptions about their difficulty or how to approach them. Graham encourages his students to not believe the experts, in hopes that they’ll attempt problems often dismissed as impossible.
Graham is almost as famous for his broad range of interests as he is for his mathematical achievements. He supported himself during graduate school by working as a professional acrobat, is a world-class juggler and trampolinist and has taught himself to speak fluent Chinese, play championship-level ping pong, bowl perfect games, boomerang and play the piano. Using examples from the trampoline and juggling, Graham illustrates his "trick" for learning. He claims his constant learning keeps his life interesting and enriches his other experiences by revealing new connections.
Last Updated: 12-15-2009
The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.