LEONARD ADLEMAN grew up in San Francisco. He did not have any great ambitions for himself and, in fact, never even thought about becoming a mathematician. He enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley intending to be a chemist, then changed his mind and said he would be a doctor. Finally, he settled on a mathematics major. “I had gone through a zillion things and finally the only thing that was left where I could get out in a reasonable time was mathematics,” he said.

Adleman graduated in five years, in 1968, “wondering what I wanted to do with my life.” He took a job as a computer programmer at the Bank of America. Then he decided that maybe he should be a physicist, so he began taking classes at San Francisco State College while working at the bank. Once again, Adleman lost interest. “I didn’t like doing experiments, I liked thinking about things,” he said. Later, he returned to Berkeley with the aim of getting a Ph.D. in computer science. “I thought that getting a Ph.D. in computer science would at least further my career,” he said.

But, while in graduate school, something else happened to Adleman. He finally understood the true nature and compelling beauty of mathematics. He discovered, he said, that mathematics “is less related to accounting than it is to philosophy.”

“People think of mathematics as some kind of practical art,” Adleman said. But, he added, “the point when you become a mathematician is where you somehow see through this and see the beauty and power of mathematics.” Adleman got his Ph.D. in 1976 and immediately landed a job as an assistant professor of mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he met Ronald Rivest and Adi Shamir, who were trying to invent an unbreakable public key system. They shared their excitement about the idea with Adleman, who greeted it with a polite yawn, thinking it impractical and not very interesting. Nevertheless, Adleman agreed to try to break the codes Rivest and Shamir proposed. Rivest and Shamir invented 42 coding systems, and each time Adleman broke the code. Finally, on their 43rd attempt, they hit upon what is now called the RSA scheme.

Adleman’s mode of working is to find something that intrigues him and to dig in. He does not read mathematics journals, he says, because he does not want to be influenced by other people’s ideas.

Asked what it is like to simply sit and think for six months, Adleman responded, “That’s what a mathematician always does. Mathematicians are trained and inclined to sit and think. A mathematician can sit and think intensely about a problem for 12 hours a day, six months straight, with perhaps just a pencil and paper.” The only prop he needs, he said, is a blackboard to stare at.

(Sumber : Joseph A. Gallian 4th ed)


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