Tea and TeX

At a recent tea hosted at my workplace, two employees were recognized, on the occasion of their retirement, for their many years of service in the organization. Husband and wife, they had met as twenty-somethings in the Society, married, and worked their entire careers there. The executive director had a few funny stories to tell about their meeting—assigned to the same cubicle, they evidently worked very closely together; the husband was finishing his bachelor’s degree at the time, but after only a few months on the job he lost his bachelor’s status—and he related how their combined service to the American Mathematical Society summed to a surprisingly large number of decades.

In my third day on the job at AMS and least senior among the employees, I had dropped my work promptly at 2:15 in the afternoon to join many other employees in the cafeteria to honor and wish these two well.  After the executive director concluded and handed them a couple of flat farewell gifts, the assembly applauded.  We were all invited to have cake, tea and coffee.  Though I did not know these folks, I felt the sweetness and a certain sadness. They had spent a significant fraction of their living time within these mostly windowless walls. According to the director’s citation of number of years worked, and assuming the organization’s current standard work week, together they had spent some 133,000 hours in this building. Both wiry and bespectacled, the husband did most of the smiling, and the wife had a wavering, uncertain expression, like thin clouds moving overhead alternately sunning and shading the ground. I could not tell whether they were glad to be leaving, or scared of what lay before them. It almost seemed as if they were the couple of college kids they had been all those years ago setting out into a big, mysterious world.

Someone thrust a paper plate into my hands, loaded with a slice of white cake with white icing and equipped with a plastic fork.  I turned to be introduced to one of my co-workers, and pushed my coffee onto the paper plate to balance them both in my left hand while I used my right to shake hands.  Our exchange went something like this:

“Tom, I’d like for you to meet Barbara,” my colleague Chris said.

A  gray-haired woman and her own piece of cake looked at me quizzically.

“Barbara, how should I introduce you?” Chris continued.

“’Fossil’ is fine,” Barbara deadpanned.

We chuckled.

Barbara continued, “I’m perfectly fine with others using that moniker, too.”

Chris said Barbara held the record for longevity at the society and that she was AMS’s tech guru, but then she clarified, “That’s spelled T-e-X, as in the typesetting system.”

“Yes, I know TeX from long experience myself. Good to meet you,” I said.  “How did you get involved with TeX?” I asked.


CTAN lion draw­ing by Duane Bibby. Knuth’s seminal book on his typesetting system was The TeXbook, and it included many drawings of the lion–the TeX user’s avatar–doing amazing feats, from creating complex formulas and equations to making exquisite adjustments to page layout.

“Back in the seventies I was in the publishing division here, and one day my boss came to me with a spiral-bound notebook and a plane ticket to California and said, ‘Go to Palo Alto, find Donald Knuth, and learn everything you can about this TeX thing he’s created.’ I went, took notes, and learned to use TeX.  He even hand-wrote some of the code for me in the notebook. I came back here. and before long we were using TeX to do the pre-press work for our journals.  And the rest is history.”

“If you’re willing to share it, I would love to see that notebook sometime,” I said.

“If I find it, I’ll show it to you.”

I said, “I have my own TeX story to tell.  One day when I was a college student, I was browsing in the library among the math journals, and I picked up an issue of the AMS Bulletin.  It was my first encounter with the journal, and when I tried to read the first article, I found it to be completely unintelligible. But I kept flipping through the issue and came across a paper by Donald Knuth entitled ‘Mathematical Typography.'”

“Yes, that was his Gibbs Lecture.  He described TeX and Metafont in it,” Barbara noted.

“It was a turning point for me.  I could actually make some sense of the article.  After scrutinizing it, I wanted to know about cubic splines.  The whole idea of  representing the outline of a symbol in a formula was intoxicating.  It became emblematic for me of what mathematics is–modeling, approximating, representation, and art.  And it had a big influence on the specialty I chose in graduate school.”

“So here you are, now.  On the mathematics mother ship.  How is it so far?”

“The first two days have been excellent.  I suppose that if you apply mathematical induction to these two starting cases, then I am off to a thrilling, infinite sequence of splendid days!”

She and Chris, both mathematicians, got the joke and laughed.

“Good luck to you!” she said.


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