Professor of Mathematics Steve Fisk, whose intelligence inspired not only his students during his career at Bowdoin, but also his discovery of a mathematical proof that his colleagues considered "breathtaking," died on January 31 at the age of 63 after a 10-year battle with leukemia.
Fisk was born in San Francisco on May 18, 1946. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of California-Berkeley and his Ph.D from Harvard. He began teaching at the College in 1977 as an assistant professor, was promoted to associate professor in 1983, and became a full professor in 1991. Fisk continued to teach courses through the spring of 2009.
His colleagues spoke of the exceptional intelligence that Fisk brought to the math department at Bowdoin.
"He could understand and ask really smart questions about any kind of math," said Professor of Mathematics Adam Levy. "And he could actually come up with one of those questions that the speaker would walk away thinking, 'You know, that's something I should think about.'"
"I think it is fair to say that he was the most well-known mathematician we've had on the staff—ever," said Fisk's colleague of 33 years, Professor of Mathematics Bill Barker.
President Barry Mills said that he appreciated that Fisk was "a person of enormous common sense and decency," in addition to the tremendous impact that Fisk could have on students.
"I think our best math students sought him out because of his sheer brilliance," said Mills.
According to Barker, Fisk was an "unusual personality"—he had a toy Pteranodon in his office, and he always wore shirts that were lively and distinctive—so not all students "got" him.
"There were students who didn't 'get him'—but those who did, realized a person who greatly cared about him, really cared about teaching," said Barker.
"He would often wander into my office before or after class, describing something he had done there hoping that students would really understand...and that this would help them learn something important," added Barker. "I think there are a fair number of students at Bowdoin who might even be surprised at that, but it was true. He loved teaching and he loved his students."
Fisk's colleagues said that his discovery of a proof of the Art Gallery Theorem was an achievement worth bragging about—though Fisk never did.
"Many in the mathematics community who never personally knew Steve certainly knew about him through his breathtaking proof of the Art Gallery Theorem," wrote Barker in an e-mail to the Orient. "Stated in a simplified manner, given an art gallery with n walls (connected together end-to-end in any erratic manner to form a 'simple polygon'), what is the minimum number of stationary guards needed to view all the walls? (Answer: [n/3])."
According to Barker, though Steve was not the first to prove the theorem, the proof that he constructed—while dozing off on a bus in Afghanistan—belongs in what mathematicians refer to as The Book, or the place in which "God keeps of the most important theorems and their most elegant proofs."
According to Levy, an elegant proof like Fisk's—one that does not go on for 500 lines, or does not bash its way to a conclusion—is very difficult to achieve.
"There are ugly proofs and beautiful proofs, but the beautiful ones are elegant, they're short...they kind of find the essence," said Levy. "The way he got to the answer was a beautiful way to do it, in our lingo."
"It's funny," added Barker, in reference to the Art Gallery Theorem. "When you read it, it doesn't sound like it should be all that difficult nor all that important. Well, it was both, and his proof was truly inspired. The students, our upper-level students in particular, when they would have a course with him or do independent work, they saw what I'm saying—that he was so good. It's going to be very hard to replace him."
Levy said that Fisk's methods in the classroom sought to challenge his students.
"I think that he had a strong philosophical preference for not necessarily helping smooth everything about for students," said Levy.
Rachael Norton '10, who took Combinatorics with Professor Fisk in the spring of 2009, said that he pushed her class to make discoveries on their own.
"It was like he really wanted his students to experiment with the ideas and come up with their own ideas," said Norton. "I think that's just the kind of professor he was."
Early in the semester, Norton sent Fisk a card that referenced one of Fisk's lectures.
"He was explaining that it was used as a model to represent bunny population," said Norton. "So somewhere between zero and one they bought a pregnant bunny. When he was sick earlier this semester I made a card for him that had the Fibonacci sequence represented by bunnies."
Senior Seth Glickman, who had taken three classes with Fisk, also spoke highly of Fisk's personality in the classroom.
"I liked him a lot. He was really smart," he said. "I was going to do an independent study with him last semester—I didn't realize how sick he was."
Fisk was unable to return to teaching after the summer on account of a severe infection he contracted in August, he was slowly regaining strength and hoped to return this semester.
"His biggest disappointment was that he couldn't come back and teach this semester. He was scheduled," said Barker. "We thought he was coming back...at least for one class, and it just all of a sudden—literally—he went downhill, he was gone. But he was so disappointed when he had to give up on the hope of coming back."
Fisk's love for mathematics, however, continued to the very end of his life.
"He was a person who loved mathematics more than anybody I know," said Barker. "And I know a lot of mathematicians."
When Barker visited Fisk at the Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough, Maine on Friday afternoon, Fisk asked Barker for a particular math book called "Roots to Research."
"I came back and I tried to get a copy—I didn't have one myself, and couldn't find any copy anywhere. Amazon could send it, but it wouldn't arrive until Monday, and I sensed that was too late," said Barker.
Instead, Barker called Visiting Lecturer in Mathematics Leon Harkleroad, who made a two-hour drive from his house to Brunswick to deliver the book early Saturday morning.
"Steve did read from it that day," said Barker. "His wife told me later that he actually had left it bookmarked on the fourth or fifth page, where the authors describe the concept of length of game."
Fisk's obituary, written by his family, considers the concept of length of game symbolically.
"While Steve's length of game may have been shorter than most of us would wish, the numbers he chose along the way gave him—and all of us—great joy," it reads.
"It does illustrate that he was a mathematician through and through," Barker added. "Even up to the end, he wanted to see and think about mathematics."
While Fisk was persevering through his illness so that he could continue to teach, Barker said "he never complained, even when it was at the end and he knew it."
"He was amazingly brave, and a model for how people can face the end of life with both dignity and courage, and he was inspiration," he said. "And it's really hard for me to imagine not having him around."
Fisk is survived by his wife, Karin Anderson, son Brian Fisk, daughter Abigail Lloyd, and stepdaughter Marissa Nickelsberg.
A memorial service for Fisk will be held on Saturday, February 6, at 2 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church at 15 Pleasant Street in Brunswick.
Photo courtesy of David Garnick.