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Benjamin Yandell, 53; Wrote Book on Elite Math Problem-Solvers

September 02, 2004|From a Times Staff Writer

Benjamin H. Yandell, the author of a book about mathematicians who had either solved or attempted to solve the 23 problems that David Hilbert laid out for the 20th century in his address to the 2nd International Congress of Mathematicians in 1900, has died. He was 53.

Yandell, a resident of Pasadena, died Aug. 25 after a heart attack, said his wife, Janet Nippell. He also had multiple sclerosis.

Yandell and Nippell, a former editor at The Times, had co-written a book about walks they had taken together in Los Angeles. "Mostly on Foot: A Year in L.A." was published in 1989. He also wrote poetry.

A biography of Hilbert led Yandell to wonder what had happened to the people who addressed the difficult problems that the German mathematician had posed to inspire future mathematicians. "The Honors Class: Hilbert's Problems and Their Solvers" took Yandell 10 years to write and was published by AK Peters in 2002.

The distinguished mathematician Hermann Weyl, who was one of Hilbert's students, had dubbed the Hilbert problem-solvers "the honors class of the mathematical community."

"I think that [solving a Hilbert problem] was really a romantic dream of a lot of young mathematicians," Yandell told the Pasadena Star-News after the book's publication.

In its May 2002 review of Yandell's book, the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science wrote: "Along the way, the reader gets some of the actual mathematics, but the most important message is really about the people: how brilliant they were, how passionate about mathematics, and sometimes how strange and eccentric as well."

Born in 1951 in Pasadena, Yandell received a mathematics degree from Stanford in 1973. At the time of his death, he was working on a book on algebra.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Kate, and a sister, Elizabeth Yandell of Irvine.

Services will be at 2 p.m. Sept. 26 at Altadena Community Church.

Memorial donations may be made to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

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