Taking the Long View: The Life of Shiing-Shen Cher

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Taking the Long View: The Life of Shiing-shen Chern 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.

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