A Life in Pursuit of Originality and Painstaking Computations
Tribute to Ord. Prof. Dr. Cahit Arf (1910–1997)
“Beethoven’s symphonies are what I call music. Because when you listen to them you find yourself in an infinite existence. The musical phrases are constructed in such a way that they trigger an infinity feeling inside you” told Ord. Prof. Dr. Cahit Arf, one of the greatest mathematicians of all times, best known with his work Arf Invariants, in an interview conducted in 1992.
Born in 1910 in Thessaloniki, Arf’s early childhood coincided with World War I, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Independence War ending with the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Arf traveled through Anatolia from north to south during the Turkish Independence War (1919–1923) due to his father’s voluntary duties in the war. During that time, he witnessed the lifestyle of the people in rural Anatolia and became fascinated, which he later described as his first true education. Despite the political turmoil in his childhood and adolescence, he managed to get promoted to professorship when he was 33, and then received the “Ordinarius” title when he was 45.
“…the characteristic of his approach is thoroughness; he always seeks invariants, and prefers explicit constructions rather than combination of existing theories.” — M.G. Ikeda
Arf encouraged young mathematicians to discover mathematics by themselves rather than learn it from written sources as he had always done himself. During his tenure in ´Ecole Normale Superior (1928–1932) in France he would never attend classes but instead ask his friend what the class matter was that day and then proceed to develop that theory himself.
He described science as “passion” and scientist merely “a person with passion using a logical methodology” which is still conceived as controversial amongst scientists in his field. For him, science must be pursued as a passion without worldly incentives such as awards, money, status etc. because only then, major obstacles can be overcome and truly original scientific results can be achieved. Without passion, the endeavor can only be described as mere knowledge gathering, not science. Hence, rules and barriers cannot be imposed upon scientists just as they cannot be imposed upon artists since both are in pursuit of understanding and expression with unlimited passion.
As a prominent scientist, Arf had also been politically active throughout his life. In late 1960s, following a criticism from government authorities about the education at METU, he took word and boldly expressed that university is not the place where you teach what is known but it is the place where you teach how to reach what is not known. He followed his point to the end and stayed critical of all reforms to bring standards to university education.
His sincerity in his approach to science was a role model. He was not aiming at publishing no matter what comes. His foremost concern was to understand. He would demonstrate this in admitting his failures and errors openly. This set ethical standards among his students which prevail today.
We profoundly share Arf’s passion to fundamentally understand concepts and their relationships. Just like Arf, our endeavor is to express this understanding in a logical and truly original methodology, so everyone has fair access to what mankind’s finest has to offer. Although we accept the fact that we will fail in some parts of this endeavor we will strive to excel in those that really matter.
Closing this tribute, we salute all the “people with a passion” around the world in pursuit of understanding and originality. Also, as an Easter egg for those who are still reading this, here is where our logo comes from: The arf invariant is a link invariant that always has the value 0 or 1. A knot has Arf invariant 0 if the knot is “pass equivalent” to the unknot and 1 if it is pass equivalent to the trefoil knot.
Keep the passion!