by Dave Peifer

This past December, I was honored to be part of a four person team that organized a week long conference dedicated to the history and legacy of Max Dehn. Max Dehn was a faculty member at BMC, from 1945-1952. This conference included 16 mathematicians and historians of science and the arts. The participants plan to produce a book about the life and legacy of Max Dehn. The book is intended for a broad audience of readers with interests in the history of mathematics and the arts.

A renowned German mathematician, many of Dehn’s mathematical works from the early 1900’s have continued to play a significant role in modern mathematics today. Several of the conference participants have expertise in mathematical areas that have been influenced by Dehn’s work. The conference included leading mathematicians, such as, Cameron Gordon (UT Austin), Marjorie Senechal (Smith College), and David Rowe (Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany).

During his time at BMC, Dehn taught mathematics, philosophy, and Greek. He was a beloved faculty member, known for his calm demeanor and his love and knowledge of the mountain flora. Dehn’s career at BMC spanned several important years of the college’s history. He began when Joseph Albers and Ted Dreier were still at BMC. He taught and lived along side other BMC faculty such as, Heinrich Jalowetz, M. C. Richards, Willem de Kooning, John Cage and Merce Cunningham. The students during his time included, Ruth Asawa, Dorothea Rockburne and Robert Rauschenberg. By the time Dehn had retired (and died a few weeks later) BMC had gone through significant changes and was struggling to survive in the post war world. The conference included historians, such as, Brenda Danilowitz, Chief Curator at The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, who will write about Dehn’s connections to BMC.

The conference organizers were very excited when Trueman MacHenry, an alumni of BMC, agreed to attend. Trueman studied with Max Dehn while at BMC. He went on to get a PhD in mathematics and is now an emeritus professor from York University, Canada. MacHenry will write a chapter about his memories of BMC and Max Dehn.

The conference was held in Germany, at the Mathematisches Forschungsinstitut Oberwolfach. This internationally supported mathematics institute is located in the Black Forest. Tucked away in a beautiful mountain region, similar to the Black Mountain landscape, the other participants and I spent five days giving talks about our proposed chapters.

On Wednesday afternoon, several of us took a 3 mile hike to a nearby village where cake (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) and beer (not as good as Asheville’s) could be procured. Dehn had been an avid hiker all his life. He would have been happy to know that the conference included this type of activity.

Our hope is to have our book about Max Dehn done by the Spring of 2018. I will keep you posted.

David Peifer is a professor of mathematics at UNC Asheville. He has been a board member of the BMCM+AC for eight years. His mathematical research is in topology and braid groups. He has also written historical pieces about Max Dehn. One of these papers is in the first volume of the BMC Studies Journal. He has given four presentations at the Reviewing BMC Conferences. Last October, he gave a talk at the Fralin Museum of Art (UVA) with Dorothea Rockburne, a NY based artist and BMC alumni greatly influenced by her time with Max Dehn. Peifer is happiest when outdoors. He enjoys mountain biking and shares Dehn’s enthusiasm for hiking and wildflowers.