Taking the Long View: The Life of Shiing-shen Chern (2011) examines the life of a remarkable mathematician whose formidable mathematical contributions were matched by an approach and vision that helped build bridges between China and the West. The biographical documentary follows Shiing-shen Chern through many of the most dramatic events of the 20th century, portraying a man who dedicated his life to pure mathematics with the style of a classical Chinese sage.
Shiing-shen Chern (1911-2004) is considered a father of modern differential geometry.
Following a classical Chinese upbringing, Chern pursued his mathematical studies in Hamburg and Paris during the 1930s and became known for building on the work of Elie Cartan, that era’s leading differential geometer.
His most important contributions began in the 1940s, when he produced an elegant and simple proof of the Gauss-Bonnet Theorem and introduced characteristic classes, now called Chern classes. During and after World War II, he worked at the Institute for Advanced Study and in China, where he trained a generation of Chinese mathematicians before the Communist takeover in 1949. That year, he returned to the United States and started teaching at the University of Chicago. In 1960, he went to Berkeley, where he created a center of geometry, and, in 1981, became a co-founder of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI). During the 1980s, his stellar reputation led to invitations from the leaders of China to help renew research mathematics in China. Chern arranged for talented Chinese scholars to study in the United States and Europe and for western mathematicians to give seminars in China. By 1986, with support from the Chinese government, he created the Nankai Institute of Mathematics at Nankai University in Tianjin. Today, it is called the Chern Institute of Mathematics.
Throughout his long and illustrious career, Chern cultivated values hearkening back to classical Chinese philosophy. His stature in mathematics had earned the respect of the Chinese leaders who came to power following Mao Tse-tung, particularly Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. With their full support, Chern was able to revive research mathematics in China, producing a new generation of talented Chinese mathematicians. Several world-renowned figures, such as Gang Tian and Shing-Tung Yau, consider Chern the mentor who helped them study in western countries following the bleak years of the Cultural Revolution, when Chinese universities were closed and academic pursuits suppressed. By the time Chern started returning to China regularly during the 1980s, he had become a celebrity; every school child knew his name, and TV cameras documented his every move whenever he ventured forth from the institute he established at Nankai University.
Chern moved back to China from Berkeley permanently in 1999 and died in Tianjin in 2004.
The documentary traces Chern’s life and accomplishments through interviews with prominent mathematicians, friends, and his children. Mostly shot during 2010 in Berkeley, at MIT, New York, Princeton, Beijing, and Tianjin, the film, which includes archival films and a discussion with Chern filmed at MSRI in 2000, is a search for the roots of Chern's successes as a creative mathematician and as an institution builder.
“What was the source of Chern’s unusual ability to influence people and make things happen?” asks the film. He exuded a strange kind of majesty; “You knew you were in the center of things if you knew him,” says Bertram Kostant.
“Whenever we had to go to the chancellor to make some special request, we always took Chern along, and it always worked,” says Berkeley mathematician Rob Kirby. “Somehow he had a presence, a gravitas. There was something about him that people just listened to him, and usually did things his way.”
Part of Chern’s authority stemmed from the mathematical work he did early in his career in the 1940s. “Chern did two very important pieces of work during his period at the Institute for Advanced Study,” explains Robert Osserman, a co-author and former colleague from MSRI. The first one was his proof of the Gauss-Bonnet theorem. That led to Chern classes, the fundamental characteristic classes in geometry and topology and algebraic geometry. “It is impossible to conceive of differential geometry without Chern classes,” adds Calvin Moore, a co-founder of MSRI. Chern classes are now ubiquitous. “People studied it so much that it became part of the way we think,” adds MSRI Director Robert Bryant.
These accomplishments paved the way for his growing reputation, particularly in China, where, already in the 1980s, he was treated like a rock star, fêted by the country's rulers, and, more important, given a free hand to restore research mathematics. His efforts on behalf of Chinese mathematicians and in establishing a new institute in Tianjin have insured his stature as a modern cultural icon in China.
Taking the Long View casts Chern as a teacher in the very traditional mode of a classical Chinese sage, a role he adapted to graciously near the end of his life.
Understanding that his presence and participation created benefits for others, Chern advanced educational opportunities for Chinese students and the quality of mathematical research in China.
Taking the Long View (2010), a 16-minute video produced by Zala Films, is the first of two documentaries about Chern commissioned by MSRI. The film premiered at the awards ceremony of the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) held in Hyderabad, India in August 2010 as part of the presentation of the very first Chern Medal, a $500,000 prize to be given to a single mathematician every four years with the stipulation that half the award be donated to support mathematical projects.
Filming resumed in Germany in December 2010, where interviews with Udo Simon and Karin Reich were conducted at the Technical University in Berlin, and another with Chern’s longtime friend Friedrich Hirzebruch was filmed at the Hausdorff Institute in Bonn.
A key interview was filmed in February 2011 with Nobel laureate C. N. Yang, who knew Chern since he was a child. Yang’s father was a mathematics professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing in the early 1930s, and Chern was one of his students. Their paths crossed many times, and their stories converged remarkably when Yang discovered that equations he had worked out in the 1950s in Physics were identical in structure to those discovered by Chern in the 1940s. Chern and Yang were among the first members of the Chinese diaspora to return and help rebuild science and mathematics education in China during the 1980s.
The feature-length biographical film (54 minutes) by the same name was completed in 2011 and premiered at the Chern Centennial Conference events at Nankai University in Tianjin (October 24 — November 5, 2011), and at the Chern Centennial Conference at MSRI in Berkeley (October 30 — November 4, 2011).
DVD copies of the film with six extra features are available now. See the order form.
Taking the Long View was made with support from Simons Foundation.Read More...