Saved by calculus

A couple weeks ago I went to the going out of business sale for the Borders bookstore in St. Paul. While being a vulture browsing the sale, I glanced through 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know: Math Explains Your World and saw this story from the Russian Civil War:

Sometime in 1919, after arriving in a nearby village, while Odesa was occupied by the Reds, [Igor] Tamm was negotiating with a villager as to how many chickens he could get for a dozen silver spoons. He was captured by one of the Makhno bands who were roaming the country, harassing the Reds. Seeing his city clothes, his captors took him to the ataman, a bearded fellow in a tall black fur hat, with machine gun cartridge ribbons crossed on his chest, and a couple of hand grenades hanging on his belt. “You miserable communist agitator, undermining our Mother Ukraine! The punishment is death!” “No, no,” answered Tamm. “I am only a professor from the University of Odesa and have come to buy some food.” “Rubbish,” said the ataman. “What kind of professor are you?” “I teach mathematics,” responded Tamm meekly. “Mathematics,” sneered the ataman. “Then you should be able to give me a bound on the error one makes by truncating McLaurin’s series at the n-th term. If you cannot answer, you will be shot.” Tamm gasped to hear this question in higher mathematics come out of the mouth of the ruffian leader. With shaking hand, under the muzzle of a gun, Tamm was able to present an answer to the ataman. “Correct,” bellowed the ataman. “You may go free.” Who was this ataman? No one will ever know. If he was not killed in the battles of the time, he might have gone on to be a professor of mathematics in some Ukrainian university.

Linguistic/political note: The above version, which I found here (about halfway down) is slightly edited from the version I read long ago in George Gamow’s My World Line. Among the changes was to replace the Russian spelling Odessa (Одесса) by the Ukrainian Odesa (Одеса), presumably because the Ukraine is now a separate nation. While writing this I noticed that Odesa triggers a warning from LiveJournal’s spell checker while Odessa does not. LiveJournal is owned by a Russian company!

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