Mischa Cotlar interview

In 2001 Mischa Cotlar was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Buenos Aires. In December 2001 he was interviewed by Carlos Borches. We give below an English translation.


The roads of a mathematician

Mischa Cotlar is for several reasons an exceptional person. He is part of a group of Argentine mathematicians of international relevance and at the same time he always gave testimony of a militant anti-war commitment from the years following the bombing of Hiroshima. And if this were not enough, his life and his beginnings in mathematics give him an absolutely unique character. Unfortunately, starting with the infamous 'Night of the Long Batons', in 1966, Mischa Cotlar left the country and, although he returns periodically, definitively fixed his residence in Caracas. Protagonist of a singular history, "Mischa" recalled the years in the Rio de la Plata when he began to "cultivate beauty" which Cotlar says is the main work of a mathematician.


Carlos Borches:
When one reviews the history of science in Argentina and, in particular, the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences, the period that tragically ended in 1966 stands out. What were the fundamental factors that mobilized them to attain such achievements in such a short time?
Mischa Cotlar:
In 1958 a new stage began, a renewal. We came from a very grey period and there were many people full of enthusiasm, wanting to do things. It seems to me that the most important thing was the human quality of those who were part of the Faculty and the desire to initiate great changes. Of course you have to analyse this by comparing it with what was before.
Carlos Borches:
When you mention the stage that preceded 1958, does it refer to the creation of the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences in 1952?
Mischa Cotlar:
Not before that. To have an idea of how things were, we must say that until the year 1944 or 1945 there was only Julio Rey Pastor, and the Department of Mathematics was a small room with a blackboard and a very nice library. However, there were not many opportunities to check out books, so we spent a lot of time copying. Now, it seems that this department, which was actually called the Mathematics Seminar and belonged to the Faculty of Engineering, bothered the deans, so they moved us to a building that depended on the Navy. Later Perón created the Faculty of Sciences in 1952. The problem was then that to be a teacher of the Faculty one had to sign an adhesion to Justicialism [or Perónism], so that in the year 1952 approximately everything was interrupted. To all this the meetings of the Argentine Mathematical Union were held, where a small group was formed which included Varsarsky, Ricabarra, Zarantonello, Klimovsky; all this on the initiative of Antonio Monteiro. Monteiro was one of the most illustrious mathematicians who came to this continent. Fundamentally he worked in logic and had done many things in his country, Portugal, until he was thrown out by the dictatorship of Oliveira Salazar. Then he obtained his doctorate in France and from there he went to Brazil, which gave him his start in mathematics, although he also had to leave there as a result of his Marxist ideas. Then he came to Argentina, going to San Juan. In San Juan he formed a group from where they left among others Villamayor. Monteiro had met the Rector of the University of Cuyo, a certain Cruz, a very interesting person and friend of Perón. Monteiro was a very persuasive person, saying: "come, come, let's talk" and "pervert." The issue is that he had convinced Cruz to put together a Department of Scientific Research. Monteiro would be responsible for founding the Institute of Mathematics and Cruz would see to it that no political interference occurred. So we all went to Mendoza but since we did not have a house we went to Rodolfo Ricabarra's house, which was very big. We dedicated ourselves to investigate and take care of the fellows, it was really very nice, we had distributed the housework, wash the dishes and that kind of thing, and after dinner we were going to read books by authors not necessarily mathematical, like Erich Fromm, Sartre and others. Varsarsky, who was half a dictator, commanded those things.
Carlos Borches:
Oscar Varsarsky?
Mischa Cotlar:
Yes, Oscar Varsarsky, probably one of the men with the greatest scientific culture. Originally he was a chemist and was very successful, then he became interested in quantum mechanics and from there he went on to the Fourier integrals; I remember that he had gone to see González Domínguez and he gave him Titchmarsh's book (they say it is 7 cm thick) thinking that he would have it for a long time. After three weeks he had returned it and spoke as an equal with González Domínguez. From there it happened logically. I also knew a lot about social science and had a huge organizational capacity. That time was very beautiful, you worked with a lot of freedom, you could not distinguish between teachers and students. In 1955, when Perón fell, a man who had been imprisoned and seen Perónists was named dean, and when he realized that the Department of Scientific Research was a Perónist initiative he closed the Department of Scientific Research and with it a publication that was subsidized by UNESCO (Cuyana Mathematics Magazine). Most of us came from this group to Buenos Aires, others went to La Plata and some, including Monteiro, to Bahía Blanca, at the invitation of Rector Vicente Fatone. Just as this man undid the Institute of Cuyo, in Buenos Aires the group that took the direction of the Faculty accompanying Babini did not destroy what there was. It was good to see that there were valuable people and in the first competitions they regularized their situation.
Carlos Borches:
And now if we reach 1960.
Mischa Cotlar:
At that time a lot of work was done, the Institute of Calculus was created and a series of publications edited by Cora Ratto de Sadosky was begun, also the Einstein Foundation whose mission was to facilitate the study of talented young people lacking resources. I have beautiful memories of that time.
Carlos Borches:
You are already a little tired of telling how your beginnings were in mathematics but your case is in many ways exemplary.
Mischa Cotlar:
It is that personal things are not very interesting. I can say that they helped me a lot. Since I arrived in America with my father, although I could not continue studying (I had only done first grade) I learned a lot from him. My father had a very large library and he talked to me about things that excited me. But in Montevideo, where we lived, I played the piano. He came in at four in the afternoon and left at four in the morning, so he could not study. Later I met Rafael Laguardia, who is the founder of Uruguayan mathematics, and later I met Rey Pastor and I came to Buenos Aires. Here I found people who helped me a lot, like Dr Vignaux and Yanny Frenkel, who later became my partner. In 1951 I did not have any degree but they got me a scholarship to go to Chicago. I wanted to go to classes, especially Zygmund's classes, but he said to me: "What are you doing here? Go and do your own things." That's how I got my doctorate in Chicago and went back to Argentina.

JOC/EFR May 2018

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