Surviving math
And other lessons in humanity

Surviving math

Orhan Alisbah

Burt Baldwin - 10/19/2023

I began my freshman year at Rutgers University in the fall of 1967. All freshmen had to take five core classes: composition, finite math, western civilization, a language and a science. The course I dreaded most was finite math. My strengths never relied on numbers. So that September, I stumbled into the classroom fearing the subject. I survived the first of two semesters with an average grade. What I wasn’t looking forward to was another four months of the same. The professor I had for the first semester was indifferent to my struggles and steered me to a teaching assistant for help. I wasn’t looking for that anxiety again, as I left those TA sessions with more confusion. So what would the January sessions reveal? Well, to my surprise the professor I had the first semester was replaced by a new instructor.

I entered the classroom with 60 fellow students and found a seat in the back. The instructor entered with a jovial attitude and a distinct foreign accent. After a week of confusion, I decided to see the instructor personally for help. Sheepishly, I came up to him after class, feeling embarrassed and defeated. He told me to grab a seat. In a deep Turkish accent this burly man said, “I fix your problem. Come to me at lunch, to my office. I’ll help you with the math.” I was dumbfounded by his kindness and willingness to help me. After a few lunch sessions, I began to regain my confidence and got through the course with an above-average grade. But more importantly, I found a kind and caring mentor.

Orhan Alisbah came to Rutgers as the chair of the Department of Pure and Applied Mathematics in 1959. He graduated with his doctorate in mathematics in Berlin in 1935. He studied with Albert Einstein, and both left with the rise of Nazism in Germany. Einstein came to the United States, and Alisbah returned to his native Turkey and taught at Istanbul Technical University. After the war, Alisbah was invited to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. There, he became an associate of Einstein and Oppenheimer.

During his Rutgers lectures, Alisbah would recount some interesting stories about his time in Istanbul and Princeton. One such story took place in Istanbul during the war. Turkey declared war on Germany in February 1945, so there were some aerial attacks by Germany along the Bosporus. Alisbah was about to graduate a number of students that winter. They were to take their final exams, and Alisbah asked them whether they would like to return home because of the hostilities or if would they like to go into the basement to finish their exams. They all opted to take their exams despite the risks. He said the bombing was so close that debris would fall on the makeshift desks they were using in the basement.

Another story he told centered around his recollections as an assistant to Einstein. He said that Einstein would sometimes come into his lab still wearing his pajamas. He would grab a cup of coffee and begin writing formulas on the blackboards. He recalled that these blackboards were all around the room. By noon, all were full. Alisbah would copy these formulas, as there were no copying machines at the time. He related that Einstein was humorous and kind and would take breaks to smoke his pipe. We all sat there in awe!

Alisbah reveled in the development of his students.  He was a true teacher and unfortunately passed away in 1977. He considered himself a world citizen, and before his death, he was involved in the Human Rights Commission of UNESCO in his home country. I will always remember Orhan as the professor who shared his lunch with me but more importantly, modeled the true meaning of being an educator.