A Comment on Ilya Piatetski-Shapiro by His Son, Gregory Piatetsky-Shapiro

Whenever I write of someone who is no longer with us and then receive a comment from a family member, friend, or colleague, I reproduce the comment in full as a separate post to give it more visibility. Here is a comment from a son:

Ilya Piatetski-Shapiro was my father and thank you for kind words you wrote about him. I was also very sorry to see on the same day obit for Jack Schwartz. What a coincidence!

I was Jack’s Research assistant during my first year of grad school at NYU in 1977, and the work I did for Jack was translating work from Ershov group from Russian to English. Jack came up with an elegant math-based computer language SETL (set language) and the group in Akademgorodok in Siberia had done interesting work on SETL. However, SETL was too powerful to be implemented efficiently, and did not spread beyond NYU.

Jack’s reputation at NYU was legendary, but he was very modest and very gracious.

I don’t recall meeting Ilya during 1977, though I hope that I did. I studied Russian for two years in High School, as I I have described in my post Thomas L Friedman – China: Scapegoat or Sputnik, so I expect Jack would have introduced us.

Several of my conversations in Russian stand out.

In late 1973, not far from Red Square, a man approached me and asked which bus went to Red Square. I replied,, “Dvadsit Cheeteri,” or “24.” He then said in a loud voice, “Ah! Vi Bulgarski!” by which he meant that from my accent he had deduced I was from Bulgaria.
I corrected him by saying, “Ya Amerikanski,” and realized my accent had been shaped by my teacher, who was from Serbia or Croatia.

During the same visit I gave a long speech, perhaps up to half an hour, trying to explain the benefits of democracy and capitalism to a room full of my wife’s Russian relatives. (Both her parents were born in Russia.)

My last visit to Russia was in December of 2004, six months after my previous visit to St. Petersberg. IBM than had a relationship with a major unversity in St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg Electrotechnical University “LETI”. IBM had funded the refurbishing of a computer laboratory and I gave a short speech in Russian.

During that visit I was part of a small group given a personal tour of the LETI museum by the LETI’s Rector, Professor Dmitry V. Puzankov, a wonderful man with great warmth and immense personal integrity. LETI’s first Rector was Alexander Stepanovitch Popov, the inventor of radio.

St. Petersburg is among the most beautiful cities I have ever visited, and none has matched the quality of the light the can be seen late in the Fall as it is reflected off the many buildings painted a particular shade of ocher, as can be seen in this image of the Peter and Paul Fortress .

I was first attracted to Russian when I was about twelve, courtesy of a course in Russian on records that I had checked out from the library. I was immediately captivated by the sounds of the language, as it has a sense of warmth and fluidity like no other language.

Though I speak Russian very poorly, I always love to hear it, usually in areas that now have many Russian residents; for example Forest Hills in Queens, the “Little Odessa” area in Brooklyn, and any street in Israel.

One Comment

  1. Joan ShwachmanYichye
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 07:41 | Permalink | Reply

    Prof. Ilya Piatetski-Shapiro was kind, gentle and very modest. I remember him asking me to help Shelly learn English before the family moved to New Haven (1986). She became friendly with my daugther (like a a big sister) during this time. We also visited them in New Haven and met Gregory in Boston.

    It was a real treat to have been invited to the Wolf Prize Ceremony in 1981 just after I joined the School of Mathematics.

    (You may publish my notes of appreciation.)

    Best regards,
    Joan Shwachman-Yichye
    Scientific Editor
    Mortimer and Raymond Sackler Institute of Adanced Studies

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