John G. Kemeny

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Co-inventor of BASIC. Einstein’s mathematical assistant. Leader and innovator in mathematics education.

By all means mathematicians should learn all the pure mathematics they want. But they must also learn applications. Get to be an expert in either the social sciences or in computer science.”  (John Kemeny)

John Kemeny spent his boyhood in Budapest. At that time Hungary had no great industries and very few opportunities for a bright young person, so many of the best and brightest became teachers. It is unfortunate that they had so few choices open to them, but as a result they educated a generation of students which contained a number of world-class mathematicians and physicists all out of proportion to the population of that small nation. Erdös and von Neumann are only two of the brightest stars of this group. These teachers looked for talented students and then nurtured and honed them with strong teaching and national competitions. Kemeny feels that the teacher he had for grades 5-8 would have been well qualified to teach at a small college.

The Kemeny family moved to New York City in 1940, and John attended high school there. He attended Princeton during World War II, and, since all of the young faculty were drafted or working on military projects, his teachers for the beginning courses in analytic geometry and calculus were some of the best known mathematicians in America. Kemeny’s interests were primarily mathematical, but he also has roughly the equivalent of a Masters degree in Philosophy and his first full-time teaching position, in 1951, was in philosophy at Princeton. During his undergraduate days, he also worked on the Manhattan Project (the A bomb) in Los Alamos, NM. As a graduate student, he worked as Einstein’s mathematical assistant:

“People would ask — did you know enough physics to help Einstein? My standard line was: Einstein did not need help in physics. But contrary to popular belief, Einstein did need help in mathematics. By which I do not mean that he wasn’t good at mathematics. He was very good at it, but he was not an up-to-date research level mathematician. His assistants were mathematicians for two reasons. First of all, in just ordinary calculations, anybody makes mistakes. There were many long calculations, deriving one formula from another to solve a differential equation. They go on forever. Any number of times we got the wrong answer. Sometimes one of us got the wrong answer, sometimes the other. The calculations were long enough that if you got the same answer at the end, you were confident. So he needed an assistant for that, and, frankly, I was more up-to-date in mathematics than he was.”

In 1953 Kemeny joined the Mathematics Department at Dartmouth, and in 1955 he became its chairman, a position he held until 1967. In that time he was instrumental in building it into a program nationally recognized for innovation and leadership, particularly in the use of computers in education. In 1971 he became President of Dartmouth and served in that position for 11 years. Kemeny has always been a committed teacher and even as President, he continued to teach 2 courses a year. He returned to full-time teaching in 1982 and remains active in mathematics, mathematics education and the uses of computers in education.

Kemeny was very worried about the consequences of nuclear war and worked with the World Federalists to educate people about the dangers. He was even offered a job as its executive director, but Einstein, who was also very concerned, talked him out of accepting it. Einstein reasoned that if you are a paid employee of such a group no one will pay attention to you. The way to be heard, he felt, is first to become first-rate at mathematics or something else — then you will have an audience. President Carter appointed Kemeny to chair the Presidential Commission to investigate the Three Mile Island accident, and the report the Commission issued in 1979 was very critical of the nuclear power industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Kemeny was also very critical of the accuracy of the reports of the accident which appeared in the news. All too commonly, the reports had the numbers right but with the wrong units, and that substantially changed the meaning of the numbers.

Kemeny is also the co-author, with Thomas Kurtz, of the computer programming language BASIC (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), the most widely used programming language in the world. In 1963, he and Kurtz wanted to make it easy for students to gain access to computing, but the only computers available cost millions of dollars and used relatively difficult-to-learn languages. First they designed the first “time sharing” system so that a single computer could simultaneously serve many users, and then they wrote BASIC to allow those users to write programs easily. The first BASIC program was run at Dartmouth at 2 am on May 4, 1964, and Dartmouth became the leader in accessible computing. In 1984 Kemeny and Kurtz wrote TrueBasic, the language they feel the original BASIC should have evolved into. It remains easy-to-learn and contains features first found in more advanced languages.

John Kemeny died unexpectedly on 26 December 1992.




1985 Computer Pioneer Award
“For BASIC.”
Learn more about the Computer Pioneer Award