Quantslut: A laywoman’s musings on the “hard” sciences and math


Missiles are falling in Lviv, in one of the many terrible tragedies of Putin’s war on Ukraine. Lviv is a Western Ukrainian city, near the Polish border, which has until recently been a place of relative safety for people forced to flee their homes in other parts of the country. It is also a city of great importance in the history of mathematics, and it feels like an act of faith and affirmation, at this moment, to remember why.

Between the two World Wars, Lviv was the home of the Lviv School of Mathematics (also often called the Polish School of Mathematics, because the city was part of Poland then). Many leading mathematicians did seminal work there, with Stefan Banach and Stanislaw Ulam only two of the most famous. They published an important journal, Studia Mathematica, and developed ideas key to several major areas of modern mathematics, including topology and set theory. For example, it was in Lviv that the ideas of Felix Hausdorff, the polymath who helped to found modern topology and whose poetry has appeared in these pages, first received serious attention and elaboration from his mathematical peers.

But most intriguing of all, to my mind, is that the Lviv mathematicians’ achievements were supported by a strong experience of community. Lviv’s Scottish Cafe was the site of regular gatherings, in which mathematicians in animated conversation (doubtless accompanied by plenty of alcohol and tobacco) scrawled problems in pencil on the tables’ marble tops. Eventually, Stefan Banach’s wife grew annoyed at this behavior and presented them with a large notebook to use instead. Guests of the café could borrow it and try to solve problems in it, sometimes being rewarded with prizes by their friends; and this Scottish Book became famous after the war as a remarkable record of the thoughts generated by a group of great minds.

May their spirit of collective effort, curiosity, and joyous celebration of the intellect inspire us in these days of danger for Lviv.

~ Kimberly Gladman ~