In Memoriam: Serge Lang, Yale Mathematician and Ethicist

Serge Lang, professor emeritus of mathematics at Yale University
Photo courtesy of Yale

Serge Lang, professor emeritus of mathematics at Yale University and a vigorous advocate for high standards and integrity in science, died suddenly on September 12 in Berkeley, California. He was 78.

He was best known as a mathematician for his work in algebra and for writing a variety of mathematics textbooks, including the very influential Algebra. His textbooks have a pure mathematics orientation, and are famous for the originality of their problems.

Lang was born in Paris, where he lived and was educated until the 10th grade, when he came to the United States with his family. He completed high school in California, then entered Caltech, where in 1946 he was awarded a B.S. degree in physics. After a year and a half in the U.S. Army, he went to Princeton University, spent a year in the philosophy department, and then switched to mathematics, receiving a Ph.D. in 1951 under the mentoring of Emil Artin.

He taught at Princeton and was a visitor to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton during 1951-1953. He was an instructor at the University of Chicago from 1953 to 1955; professor at Columbia University from 1955 to 1970, and a Fulbright scholar in Paris in 1958. He came to Yale in 1972 as a tenured professor of mathematics.

His colleague at Yale, Professor Gregg Zuckerman said, “I met Serge and took his course when he visited Princeton in 1970. He was known as an inspiring teacher of mathematics at all levels and his contributions to class field theory, algebraic geometry, and the theory of infinite dimensional manifolds gave him world-wide recognition.” He was awarded the Dylan Hixon ‘88 Prize for Teaching in the Sciences in 2004, and a former student endowed a fund in his honor.

Besides his university teaching, he gave numerous public lectures and made guest appearances in schools in the U.S. and abroad. He published several books based on transcripts of these performances, including audience participation.

Lang published numerous research articles. His contributions to algebraic geometry and Diophantine equations gained him worldwide recognition. He also produced widely used texts and monographs on an exceptionally broad range of topics. Several of his monographs are the only treatment of their subjects in book form.

He received the Cole Prize from the American Mathematical Society (AMS) in 1959, the Prix Carrière in France in 1967, the Humboldt Award for research and teaching in 1984, and the Steele Prize for Math Exposition from the AMS in 1999. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1985.

Although his principal interest was mathematics, his other interests ranged from music to political, social, and academic activism. A lifelong concern was the financing of universities and the accompanying threat to intellectual freedom from political and bureaucratic interference. In the 1960s, he was applauded for spearheading a defense of academic research practices against intrusive government regulation.

He was occupied continuously with maintaining standards in the academic world, especially the sciences, as they pertained to scientific periodicals, the press at large, and the scientific establishment. His concerns were expressed across a broad spectrum of fields and issues wherever there was a perceived need for thorough documentation and wide distribution of information. As Lang said, he “put scholarship in the service of action to stop the nonsense.”

Announcement of a memorial service at Yale in the fall, will be posted on the Department of Mathematics web site.