About the Film
Production of Taking the Long View: The Life of Shiing-shen Chern officially began in March 2010. A 16-minute short film was shown at the 2010 International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) in Hyderabad, India in August 2010; and a one-hour piece, was completed in time for the 100th anniversary celebrations honoring Chern in October and November 2011 at MSRI in Berkeley, Nankai University in Tianjin, and IHÉS in France.
Shooting began in April with interviews filmed at MSRI and around Berkeley with Chern’s former colleagues, students, and an old friend.
- Alan Weinstein, Mathematics Department, UC Berkeley
- Weinstein was attracted to UC Berkeley by Chern and the geometry group that collected around him in the 1960s. He provides explanations of Chern’s contributions to differential geometry and stories about Chern’s effectiveness as a mentor. In the film, he also explores Chern’s interest in classical Chinese philosophy and lays the groundwork for understanding Chern as a traditional Chinese scholar.
- Chuu-Lian Terng, Mathematics Department, UC Irvine
- Professor Terng knew Chern as a graduate student when she was at Berkeley. She considers him to be one of her most important mentors and wrote a biographical essay about him. “He gave me confidence and encouragement. ‘Just work,’ he said.”
- Calvin C. Moore
- Calvin C. Moore, together with Isadore Singer and Shiing-shen Chern, founded the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in 1982. “It’s impossible to think of differential geometry in the second half of the 20th century without Chern,” he says.
- Marty Shen
- Marty Shen and Shiing-shen Chern became friends at Kunming, China, where Chern taught starting in 1937 during the Sino-Japanese War. Chern kept him out of trouble during his student years. Their friendship resumed in the 1950s, when both found themselves in Chicago and later when they settled in California.
- Robert L. Bryant, Director of MSRI
- Robert L. Bryant, director of MSRI since 2007, considers himself a mathematical grandchild of Shiing-shen Chern. “Chern made MSRI into an important mathematical center, practically overnight,” says Bryant.
- Robert Uomini
- Robert Uomini was a student of Chern’s at Berkeley in the 1970s. When he won the California Lottery jackpot in 1995, he promptly endowed a chair at U.C. Berkeley’s Mathematics Department in honor of Chern.
- Robert Osserman, Professor Emeritus at
- Bob Osserman is Special Projects Director at MSRI, concentrating on outreach activities. Working in differential geometry himself, he co-authored papers with Chern and organized conferences with him in the 1970s.
- Hung-Hsi Wu, Department of Mathematics,
- Professor Wu has written about Chern’s contributions to mathematics in a history of the Gauss-Bonnet theorem. In the film, he traces much of Chern’s life—from China, to Europe and the United States, and back to China—and explains the context of Chern’s importance to the revival of mathematics in present-day China. “He had the kind of authority you cannot go out and get for yourself; it was just there; he was a true leader,” he says about Chern.
- Rob Kirby, UC Berkeley
- Professor Kirby tries to pin down the source of Chern’s leadership qualities. “Chern was, in a sense, Berkeley’s most distinguished professor. Whenever we had to go to the chancellor to make some special request, we always took Chern along and it always worked. Somehow he had a presence, a gravitas. There was something about him. People just listened to him…and usually did things his way,” he explains.
- C. N. Yang, Physicist
- “He created a branch of mathematics which now unites all the major branches of mathematics with rich structure—which is still developing today.”
- Paul Chu, University of Houston
- “He always talked about independence. When he was in high school he wrote a little poem—it’s printed in the school newspaper—on flying a kite. And usually people really admire the fact that the kite can fly high above ground, enjoying all these great views of the earth. But he put it a different way. He said, I really have pity on you. You are flying so high, and yet you do not have freedom. All your freedom is always determined by that little string. I feel sad for you. You can see when he was very young he already has that kind of independent thinking.”
- Udo Simon, Technical University, Berlin
- “Chern was 21 years old. He was so impressed by Blaschke. Blaschke was very good in teaching, he was a very vivid personality, and he could convince his audience that mathematics is something very, very interesting.”
- Chuu-Lian Terng, UC Irvine
- “Well, Cartan invented the moving frame method, but Chern really was the one who used it to solve global problems, PDE problems, and his characteristic class also; if you use moving frames, it becomes very beautiful, and simple and natural.”
- Molin Ge, Theoretical Physicist,
Chern Institute of Mathematics
- “During the Cultural Revolution all universities were closed down. Many famous mathematicians, college students and physicists were sent to factories and Five-Seven Farms for thought reform. All teaching and research activities were stopped. The Red Guard Movement appeared and took over the schools. Then they split into factions and fought each other.”
- C.N. Yang, Physicist
- “Chern and I and many others felt that we have the responsibility to try to create more understanding between the American people and the Chinese people, and we feel that we should try to help China to acquire more modern scientific knowledge. All of us shared the desire to promote more exchanges.”
- Yiming Long, Director, Chern Institute of Mathematics
- “Professor Chern had the vision to really set up an institute inside the mainland of China, so that more young people can get educated.”
- Molin Ge, Theoretical Physicist,
Chern Institute of Mathematics
- “He said, ‘my policy to operate this institute is very simple. Three words in Chinese. First, no meetings. Second, no plan. Third, do more.’ That means, just do your research work.”
- Guoding Hu, First Director, Nankai Institute of Mathematics
- “Chern said, ‘A fallen leaf returns to its roots.’ Thinking he was American, people didn't believe that he wanted to return. Actually, this ‘fallen leaf’ not only wanted to return, he wanted to make this land prosper. He came back to develop mathematics in China. But he had bigger plans than just Nankai University. There is a line of twelve words: ‘Stand on Nankai, facing China, with eyes on the world.’”
- C.N. Yang, Physicist
- “Why should one equation which the mathematicians cooked up already in the nineteenth century, which is a very beautiful equation, why is that similar in structure with the physicists’ equation, which came from a completely different source? That’s the mystery which nobody will be able to understand, I think. I think only God understands why that is so. There is that joke among physicists and mathematicians: why is it that physical laws are based on beautiful mathematics? Answer: because God is a mathematician. Which means that nobody understands this mystery.”
- Alan Weinstein, UC Berkeley
- “There’s a quotation from Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, that could have been written about Chern. ‘The master does his job and then stops. He understands that the universe is forever out of control, and that trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao. Because he believes in himself, he doesn’t try to convince others. Because he is content with himself, he doesn’t need other’s approval. Because he accepts himself, the whole world accepts him.’”
Production resumed in mid-May with interviews at MIT with Bertram Kostant and Isadore Singer, who had contact with Chern when Chern taught at the University of Chicago and then again at Berkeley. Shiing-shen Chern’s son Paul Chern and his wife Susan Chern were interviewed at their home in Needham, Massachusetts. Their stories support the frequent observation that Chern was a far-sighted leader who saw opportunities to bring people together in ways that would benefit them.
An interview with Jim Simons in New York City followed. Simons, now retired from a successful career in finance, co-authored papers with Chern when he was a mathematician. A 1974 paper, entitled “Characteristic Forms and Geometric Invariants," is considered the basis for Chern-Simons theory.
Director George Csicsery interviewing Jim Simons
When another mathematician complained to Chern that Simons had left the field, Chern said, “Well, he’s not David Hilbert.” Simons says that he always admired Chern’s tact in that comment. “He didn’t have to reach that high,” he laughed. In the film, Simons delineates Chern’s virtues with great admiration.
- Phillip Griffiths
- Phillip Griffiths, former Director at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, was interviewed at the institute. In addition to providing a history of Chern’s mathematical work, Griffiths described Chern’s role in persuading the Chinese government to host the 2002 International Congress of Mathematicians in Beijing.
The Institute for Advanced Study proved to be a valuable source of photographs and letters for the film. Chern visited the institute several times starting in 1937 and did some of his most important work there. The correspondence between the institute’s directors and Chern about bringing him to Princeton in 1943 and 1949 is particularly informative about the challenges faced by Chern in moving between China and the United States during World War II and the civil war in China that followed. The Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center provided full access to these letters and many other important notes and images.
Chern Institute of Mathematics, Nankai University, Tianjin
Cinematographer Andrea Cavazzuti shooting at Nankai University
Production resumed at the end of May in Beijing and Tianjin when producer-director George Csicsery was invited by the Chern Institute of Mathematics (CIM) at Nankai University.
The true importance of Shiing-shen Chern’s role in the development of mathematics in modern China emerged during five days of interviews conducted with the help of a Beijing-based video crew.
His influence with Chinese government leaders helped bring Western mathematicians to China and send Chinese students to study abroad. Today’s leaders in Chinese mathematics were all beneficiaries of Chern’s vision. His greatest contribution to the restoration of Chinese mathematics, however, is the establishment of the Nankai Institute of Mathematics, today known as the Chern Institute of Mathematics. The Chern Institute provided a base for these international interactions which often led to collaborations, reciprocal visits, and joint papers.
- Molin Ge, Chern Institute of Mathematics
- Molin Ge, a physicist and vice director of the Chern Institute of Mathematics, experienced the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution on research scientists and scholars in China personally and can contrast it with today’s boom in these fields. He credits Chern and C. N. Yang with opening the doors that made today’s advances possible.
- Wentsun Wu
- Wentsun Wu, a leader in algebraic topology and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, took classes from Chern in topology at Tsinghua University in 1946 before going to France. They re-established their connection in 1972 when Chern first visited China and remained friends until Chern’s death. Wu recounted his experiences during the Cultural Revolution, emphasizing the importance of Chern’s contribution to reviving mathematics in modern China.
- Guoding Hu
- Guoding Hu was in the administration when Chern first visited his alma mater, Nankai University. He paved the way for Chern’s contact with important government leaders in China, such as Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, who then made it possible for Chern and Guoding Hu to establish the Nankai Institute of Mathematics, today called the Chern Institute of Mathematics. Guoding Hu became the institute’s first director.
- Gang Tian
- Gang Tian of MIT, Princeton, and Beijing univiersities, is one of the most accomplished of China’s mathematicians today. He is known for his contributions to geometric analysis and quantum cohomology, among other fields. Chern was the first mathematician from abroad that he met when he was a student in China. Chern made it possible for him and many others to study abroad.
- Weiping Zhang
- Weiping Zhang benefited from Chern’s opening up of opportunities in the West for young Chinese mathematicians when Chern introduced him to his future thesis advisor in France. He became third director of the Nankai Institute of Mathematics, 2004-2007.
- Lei Fu
- Lei Fu works in algebraic geometry. He is vice director of the Chern Institute of Mathematics.
- Xizin Hou
- Xizin Hou was president of Nankai University between 1998 and 2006.
- Yiming Long
- Yiming Long is Director of the Chern Institute of Mathematics (CIM) at Nankai University in Tianjin, China. His goal is to maintain the quality of caring for the human beings at the institute that was a hallmark of Chern’s legacy, while turning CIM into a world-class center of mathematical research.
- Deling Hu
- When Chern moved back to China in 2000, Deling Hu worked as his driver at Nankai. When Chern became infirm he became one of several full-time caretakers. “Chern always encouraged me to study so that I could improve my situation,” he said.
Filming at Nankai concluded with a day of shooting around the city of Tianjin and a visit to Fulun Middle School, where Chern had been a student before enrolling at Nankai University in the 1930s. All of the students at the school today learn about Chern as one of their school’s most important graduates.
Girls at Fulun Middle School talk about S.-S. Chern
Lin Jing on camera with Wu Yaubo recording audio
at a hutong in Tianjin, China in June 2010.
- May Chu
- May Chu, S.-S. Chern’s daughter, describes her father as an easygoing parent who provided encouragement and support.
- Paul Chern
- Paul Chern corroborated his sister’s opinion about their father. “He often saw what was best for you before you realized it yourself.”
- Paul Chu
- Paul Chu, a physicist at the University of Houston and former president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, met Chern when he was dating his daughter May Chu. In Taking the Long View he describes Chern as “an ordinary great man.”
Editor Tal Skloot and Assistant Asali Echols prepare a draft of
Taking the Long View with fimmaker George Csicsery in July 2010.
The film’s Chinese title is based on this calligraphy made by Chris Wang. A literal translation of the words Shan Chang Shui Yuan: The mountain range is long and the river is unending. Read More...