Freedman on Xiaosong Lin

Xiao-Song studied under Michael Freedman from 1984-1988. In September 2006, Freedman wrote Xiao-Song on the inside cover of the Soviet book, How the Steel was Tempered, to encourage him. Then in December 2006, he wrote Xiao-Song again during the critical juncture of Xiao-Song's life. Freedman gave an improvised speech at Xiao-Song's funeral on Jan. 19, 2007. Below are the letters and speech.

1. On the inside cover of: How the Steel was Tempered

Dear Lin,

This seems to be one of the many great stories of struggle and passion. I've read dozens in the mountaineering genera---the pacifist's field of battle. But I think all this Human struggle---scurrying to and fro---on what at the time seem critical missions, is cut from a single cloth. Very little of what is won survives, but maybe the stone of our world is eventually polished down a fraction by Millennia of our discordant efforts. You and I can take pleasure in having carved into a more durable medium---mathematics. There will ever after be string links and finite type invariants. As I learn physics I become increasingly religious in the sense of feeling connected to all other things. It feels as if we are ripples on a lake rather than separate entities. Even time-as Einstein wrote-is ¡°only a stubbornly persistent illusion.¡±

Best Wishes,


2. For the LinBook

Dear Lin,   Permit me to write you, your friends, and Family all at the same time a kind of "open letter". If I count correctly you were the second student that I took on for a Ph.D. (Fred Hickling being my first), but I recall that you and he may have graduated in the same year so you are also my "first student". Well, I probably gave you a lot of useless advice being inexperienced. This was a problem I had my whole life: since I didn't have a normal education, I never quite felt comfortable dispensing education - I had no idea, particularly in the beginning, what was normal, expected or proper. So we just winged it, you and I, and it did turn out fine. You wrote a great thesis, invented string links, collaborated with Nathan Habbeger, and did as much as anyone else has in the last 25 years to unravel the AB slice problem. Sometimes when I think of our work on that problem I feel like an old time mountaineer stormed off a high peak just short of the summit. Intense efforts have a cost, I don't know how the experience affected you, but the effort, like a marathon run too hard, left me unable to concentrate fully on topology. I felt beaten. Happily we both recovered and found good things to think about. I'm glad we both ended up in the quantum world. I appreciated your coming up to Redmond - was that 1998? - and reversing the roles. Then you were my teacher as I was trying to catch up in quantum topology in order to think about computing.   Some people generate a mythology. You have some unintended talent in this area. I think my stories about you have some foundation in truth but perhaps I have exaggerated the imagery, or perhaps not. Often in explaining to students that they should not be discouraged, how that can catch and exceed their child prodigy peers (if the mood blows hard into their sails) I like to mention Kevin Walker growing up in South Carolina where, in his assessment, "no one knew calculus within a fifty mile radius of my high school." But my favorite image in young Lin weathering the cultural revolution: As my story goes you are this tiny human figure in a chthonian steel foundry manipulating with tongs and pikes giant buckets of molten metal gimbaled precariously over your head. I think this is true. When I think of what you have accomplished I am awed: Getting to America, Adapting to America, raising your beautiful family, instilling inquiry and insight into your sons, developing your university and your journal, your beautiful work in mathematics, and all the while staying close and available to your many friends.   All these things reflect your courage and imagination. These are the values in which I continue to trust.   With all my respect and love and the best wishes of my family,


3. Freedman's Speech at the Funeral

Thank you¡­thank you for letting me be here.

We knew Lin as a man of really wonderful and great courage, a very gentle man, firm on principle, but extraordinarily kind and careful to detail. Very easy-going. But when things mattered, he was firm.

I apologize for my speaking voice its hard to follow ¡°amazing grace¡± (Remark: a song).

You know, I'll call Xiao Song, Lin, and I'll tell you why at the end, but Lin would tell me about his past in China when he was a graduate student. And for me it was incredible, I couldn't visualize this, his teen years. He was apparently, in the Cultural Revolution, he was working in a steel factory, and he would manipulate these huge ladles of molten metal above his head. He would have metal bars sliding along a track and poured them, you know . . . it sounded like Dickens through the 19 th century. And I sometimes thought that some of the steel got into him¡­ and became the strength of him.

I felt with Lin, he was one of my first PhD students, but I felt toward him more like my mountaineering colleagues, because we kind of ignored his thesis and we went off on an expedition; an intellectual one. We were trying to do something that in the end we couldn't do; which is very risky business for young mathematicians. If you try as hard as you can to do something, this was called the AB slice problem. It's not important but it was. If you try very hard and you fail, there was a risk. I mean, you know just as in mountaineering, you can fall off a cliff. In mathematics you can as good as fall off a cliff. If you try something very difficult and you fail, that can be the end. So we started to crawl down from this mountain alive. We started going through the snowstorms. But it was an adventure. It's still an open problem for students in the audience who maybe want to think about . It was a real bonding experience with Lin.

And I used to call him up, sometimes late at night, because I had an idea that I wanted to bounce off of him. He was very good at certain calculations I didn't really know how to do and he could know something and I would feel like it and I could write them up.

Now ill tell you why I call him Lin: because if I called, and somebody answered his house and I said to them ¡°can I speak to Xiao-Song?¡± They wouldn't know who I was talking about because my intonation wouldn't be correct. Even Lin wouldn't work to well. I tell you, ¡°Can I speak to Lin?¡±; ¡°Who?¡± ¡°Lin,¡±(in different pronunciations), ¡°who?¡± ¡°Lin, Lin, Lin, Lin, Lin.¡± Eventually, I get it. And they would get it. That's probably Tian. was it? (Someone says something).

So I have to apologize for this actually, when I was a small child I had a high fever, a pneumatic fever. Well the fever would improve my ability to do math and damage my hearing a little bit. Not very much, but enough that the subtleties. So you know I was never able to penetrate Chinese as slight as the first two names. Lin was as close as I could come. Lin very graciously allowed me to use his surname and I think he thought we were always close for it.

I just wanted to say a couple more words about those early days. So in the math department in UCSD where we were; of course Yau was there, professor Yau. And you know I was an observing young man; I looked around and I realized that Yau was onto something. That if you had these incredibly smart students, well that was good. It leveraged what you could do quite a bit. Heck you didn't need to think quite so much. So Lin was sort of my Rick Schoen, my Tian. You know I could turn over the worse of it to him and expect by morning that something would have happened. There would be real progress as well. I don't want to give the impression that's all the work that we did, but what sticks in my mind is that expedition that we completed.

So I just want to say that¡­ I love Lin, and thank you for letting me be here.