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Thursday, April 24, 2014

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Library acquires papers of eminent mathematician

The papers of an eminent Princeton mathematician have arrived on campus for preservation in the University Library.

Correspondence, editorial files, notes and other materials that document the long and distinguished career of Alonzo Church will be housed in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in Firestone Library. The 50 linear feet of materials were delivered by truck on April 25.

Church, who lived from 1903 to 1995, earned his bachelor's degree in 1924 and his doctoral degree in 1927 from Princeton. He joined the faculty in 1929 and transferred to emeritus status in 1967. During the 1930s, Church made Princeton a leading center of research in mathematical logic.

"It is an appropriate time for the papers to come to the library since June 14th is the 100th anniversary of Church's birth," said Don Skemer, curator of manuscripts in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. The papers were donated by the Church family through the special efforts of the professor's son, Alonzo Church Jr. of Hudson, Ohio, who is a 1951 Princeton graduate.

Two of the professor's key contributions to mathematical logic are called Church's Theorem and the Church-Turing Thesis . The theorem extended the work of Kurt Gödel, a prominent Austrian mathematician who later became a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and whose papers also are housed in the Princeton library. The thesis resulted from Church's collaboration with his early students, Barkley Rosser, Stephen Kleene and Alan Turing.

In the 1950s and '60s another generation of Church's students, including Michael Rabin, Hartley Rodgers and Dana Scott, extended this research to automata, formal languages and formal semantics, shaping the new field of theoretical computer science. Through this work, one of Church's earliest creations -- the lambda calculus -- gained new life as the basis for functional programming languages and for denotational semantics.

While pursuing his own research, Church played a leading role in establishing symbolic logic as an autonomous mathematical discipline. He also left a legacy as a teacher, famous for the care with which he presented his subject and critiqued the work of others. After retiring from Princeton in 1967, Church had a second academic career teaching at the University of California-Los Angeles until 1990. His final years were spent completing unfinished papers in an apartment near his son in Hudson, Ohio.

The full story is available in the Weekly Bulletin.

Contact: Evelyn Tu (609) 258-3601

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