Richard Palais

(completed 2011-07-09);

Dick Palais was the first president (then called the chairman) of TUG.

 

 

Dave Walden, interviewer:     Please tell me about yourself.

Richard Palais, interviewee:     I was born and grew up in the area around Boston. After completing both my undergraduate and graduate work at Harvard in 1956, I spent the next two years as an Instructor in the University of Chicago math department, followed by two years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Then in 1960 I returned to Boston as a member of the Brandeis math department, and except for a few years on sabbatical or leave of absence I remained there until becoming emeritus in 1997. At that point I started a second career, writing Mathematical Visualization software. The program I have been involved with is called 3D-XplorMath. It is used quite widely for research and teaching, and also for producing objects that are incorporated into mathematically oriented art. It is freely available at http://3D-XplorMath.org and we have set up a virtual mathematical museum populated with objects produced by the program at http://VirtualMathMuseum.org. My wife, Chuu-lian Terng, is also a mathematician and was a professor at Northeastern until about seven years ago, when she received an offer of a position at the University of California at Irvine, and we have now become happy Southern Californians.

DW:     Please tell us about your involvement with TeX and TUG.

RP:     I became aware of TeX a little before Don Knuth gave his famous 1978 Gibbs Lecture in which he introduced TeX and Metafont to the world. But to explain how I became involved in the early history of TeX, and in particular how I became the first chair of TUG, I will have to go back a number of years before that.

Like many U.S. academic mathematicians, starting early in my career I became involved with the American Mathematical Society (AMS), first as a journal editor and then as a member of its Council, the body that sets its scientific policies. Later, in 1971, I was elected to the Board of Trustees, the body that sets the budget and oversees the rather extensive business activities of the AMS, and I served in that capacity for the next ten years. Since the Board is rather small, and I was the only one on it with extensive experience with computers, I was assigned the oversight of the Society's computer operations.

The decade of the 1970s was a grim one for mathematical publishing, or perhaps I should say for mathematical typesetting, for that was the source of the problems. Maybe in retrospect it can be seen as just a period of difficult transition from the classic Monotype approach that had served so well for so long, to the current golden age of TeX , but at the time the problems seemed almost unmanageable and we could not at first see any light at the end of the tunnel. What happened was that high-quality typesetting of mathematical manuscripts was becoming more expensive and the quality of less expensive typesetting was not acceptable. And since publishing mathematical articles, books and reviews is the principal business of the AMS, the trustees faced a continuing dilemma that was a constant headache: should we increase sharply the prices of our products or should we give up on high-quality typesetting. In the end we did both, and no one was happy. In the less prestigious series we produced some pretty ugly products, and where we felt we could not sacrifice our high-quality standards we tried outsourcing to Korea and other countries where costs were lower, but in the end we still had to raise prices.

I don't pretend to be expert in the history of mathematical typesetting, but from what I have read and heard, the following is roughly the story behind the how and why mathematical typesetting went into this downhill slide. In classic typesetting, with a Monotype machine, the operator or compositor, can make a second pass over a line of type and add new symbols at a different level. This makes it possible for a highly trained Monotype operator to set a complex mathematical display with subscripts and superscripts, and end up with something that looks correct and even elegant to a mathematician. However, with the slightly older Linotype system only a single pass was possible, so while simple inline mathematical formulas could be handled with Linotype, complex displays were out of reach. On the other hand, the Linotype approach proved to be more efficient and economical and Monotype gradually faded away, since the vast majority of typesetting of books, magazines, and newspapers had no need for its extra sophistication. By the late 1960s there were probably only a few dozen Monotype compositors worldwide who were expert in setting mathematics, and no more were being trained.

Monotype and Linotype originated in the nineteenth century and both were “hot metal” processes; that is, they produced lines of type that were cast from molten lead. In the 1960s a newer typesetting process called photo-typesetting began to replace these hot metal machines. It used photographic methods, projecting glyphs one by one onto photographic film to produce the original printed page. While this worked well for normal printing, it again proved less than satisfactory for mathematics. In fact, it was dissatisfaction with a proposed photo-typeset second edition of Volume 2 of The Art of Computer Programming that Knuth says started him in 1976 on the road to TeX and Metafont. In the end the AMS did find an interim photo-typesetting solution to its journal publishing needs from a company called Science Typographers Inc. The software was a bit of a kluge; it was difficult to use and the quality was less than stellar, but we learned to live with it until TeX came along and we could get it up and running.

While I had heard rumors of Knuth's interest in developing a digital typesetting system somewhat earlier, it was only in late 1977, when I saw the title of his Gibbs Lecture, that I became excited about it. It so happened that I was the Chairman of the AMS Board of Trustees that year, so at the special dinner for Knuth that preceded his talk I was seated next to him. We went on to become quite good friends over the next few years, but that was the first time I had met him and I recall being struck by how friendly and easy to talk to he was. He seemed to understand the difficulties we were up against trying to maintain the high-quality of the typesetting in our journals and I had the impression he might be willing to help us switch to TeX for that purpose. After I heard Knuth explain TeX in more detail in his lecture I became convinced that this was the way for us to go. But perhaps the single most important AMS publication — its flagship so to speak — was Mathematical Reviews which had a whole separate operation and support staff in Ann Arbor, far from the AMS main office in Providence, and anything as potentially disruptive to their work flow as a complete change in the typesetting system had to be acceptable to them. So when I found out that the MR people were as enthusiastic about TeX as I was, that settled the matter, and we were able to convince the Executive Director and the rest of the trustees to make the investment in TeX. As it turned out, this was going to require more than just money — it was also going to take the time and efforts of a great many people to take full advantage of what TeX had to offer. For me in particular, it did absorb a lot of my time over the next few years, but I felt well repaid since it also turned out to be an adventure in which I had many new experiences and got to know many interesting people.

Once we made the decision to go with TeX, we were anxious to make the transition as speedily as possible, and since the TeX and Metafont programs were written in SAIL, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Language, we installed in Providence a DECSystem 20, the system for which the SAIL compiler was written. Most of the hard work required to get TeX up and running fell to Barbara Beeton. She went to Stanford on the 1979 summer AMS-TeX project, about which I will say more below. One of Don's graduate students, David Fuchs, taught her a lot about TeXnicalities, and she brought back an initial installation tape and got TeX working in Providence that Fall. Today we think of TeX as the epitome of a stable and unchanging program, but back then it was evolving rapidly, and we needed a way to keep the AMS implementation up-to-date. Fortunately Don Knuth had an account on an MIT computer, the Macsyma development machine known as MIT-MC, and both it and the SAIL computer were connected via the ARPANET, the precursor to today's Internet. So I got an account on the MC machine and each time TeX was updated, Don would FTP the new version to my account there and send an email to palais@mit-mc to let me know. Late that night I would drive in to the MIT Computer Lab and copy the new version to a reel of tape, and the next day drive down to Providence to give it to Barbara.

The MC machine had a rather unorthodox home-brew operating system and I occasionally needed help figuring out how to get something done on it. Fortunately there was a young guru (who I later learned had written much of that operating system) who always seemed to be around and I surmised probably slept there. His name was Richard Stallman and he was always happy to help. When Barbara Beeton was at Stanford, David Fuchs turned her on to Emacs, and she sorely missed having it on the Providence machine, so when I learned that Stallman was also the author of Emacs, I got AMS in touch with him, and the next time I drove down to Providence rms, as he was known, came along to do the installation. On the way down I inquired how much he was getting as a consulting fee from AMS, and he seemed genuinely confused at the idea that he should get paid for such a thing. I tried to convince him that he should get at least $100 for his efforts, but I never checked and I suspect he really didn't care enough to ask for payment! I wasn't much surprised when later I heard that he had been named a MacArthur Fellow or that he had founded the Free Software Foundation.

We had much larger goals in mind for TeX than just being a new production typesetting system for AMS journals. Early on we had the idea that it would be a major step forward if we could get mathematicians to use TeX to typeset their own papers. This was not aimed at saving publishers the expense of typesetting manuscripts but rather at saving the time and effort of mathematician authors! In those days after much work by an author and technical typist to get a correct manuscript, many errors were often added by the compositor and there would be one or more time-consuming and often frustrating up-and-backs trying to get an error-free version ready for publication. While the TeX Users Group (TUG) was founded to be a general clearing house for all TeX-related matters, it was getting mathematicians willing and able to actually “TeX their own papers” that I and many others felt would be one of its important functions. Of course we realized that writing a paper starting from plain TeX would not appeal to most mathematicians, so we decided to write a special macro package that we called AMS-TeX, specifically designed for research mathematicians, to make it as easy as possible for them to write an article in TeX. I applied to the NSF for a grant to cover the expenses for a group of mathematicians and AMS staff from Providence and Ann Arbor to spend several weeks at Stanford working with Knuth and some of his graduate students, learning how to write a macro package. I expected that I and my friend Robert Morris would do most of the actual macro writing, but I also asked another good friend, Michael Spivak, to join us with the idea that he would write a manual aimed at mathematicians, teaching them how to use AMS-TeX. Mike had just had a very frustrating experience trying (and ultimately failing) to write a book using the UNIX troff typesetting system. He had told me that the documentation for troff was miserable, so I told him here was his chance to show how it should be done. The manual that came out of this was of course Mike's famous and successful Joy of TeX. But the big surprise was that Mike, who had never done any computer programming before, was inspired by Knuth's lectures on macro writing and turned out to be a whiz at both designing a macro package and writing macros, so he not only wrote the manual, but took over the entire creation of AMS-TeX from Bob Morris and me.

In Volume 1, Number 1 of the TUGboat, dated October 1980, I wrote an article called “Message from the Chairman” in which I talked about the role of the TeX Users Group, and explained much of what I said above about the goals we had in mind for TeX. I added one further, more futuristic sounding role for TeX, and while we have not yet completely achieved this vision, with the continual growth and acceptance of JSTOR and the mathematics arXiv, we seem to well be on our way there. Here is what I said:

If we go ahead a little further in time we can foresee a development that I call the all-electronic, save-the-forest library. It is rapidly becoming the case that many (perhaps most!) articles in a particular library copy of a scientific journal are never read. Those that are read are apt to be photocopied out of that library copy to be read at leisure at home. The costs of printing, binding, and mailing the journal makes up the other half of the journal's costs mentioned above. Why not save those costs too by having the journal in magnetic storage at some (or several) central locations. It will soon be cheap and easy to peruse such a magnetic journal on a computer terminal in the comfort of one's own home or office.
and then I noted that TeX source files or DVI files would be a good format in which to store such online journals. Of course today I would have added PDF.

Shortly after writing that article I started to disengage from TUG-related activities, and in particular Mike Spivak took over for me as Chair of the TUG Steering Committee. There were several reasons for this. For one, I wanted to concentrate more on my mathematical research, and I spent the 1980–81 academic year on sabbatical leave from Brandeis at the Mathematics Institute in Bonn, Germany. But another reason was that I found myself inextricably involved in various other interesting but time-consuming TeX-related matters. Perhaps I can best finish up by saying something about a couple of those activities.

I mentioned earlier that the Trustees went along with the recommendation to make TeX the primary mathematical composition system for the production of AMS journals. But there was considerable uneasiness with this decision and even some opposition. For a core activity of the Society to be dependent on public domain software that was not commercially supported made people more than a little nervous — particularly since that software was still a long way from stable and AMS had no prior in-house experience with maintaining a new and complex software system. It was decided that in order to build up the experience and expertise required, the Society should set up a committee, the AMS Standing Committee on Composition Technology, whose charge it would be to oversee the transition from STI to TeX. The members of the committee included AMS staff from the Providence headquarters and the Math Reviews office in Ann Arbor and also Don Knuth and some of his graduate students and postdocs who were involved with the TeX project. I was asked to chair this committee, not because I had experience or expertise in composition technology — when the committee was formed I had neither — but rather to keep the other AMS trustees informed on how things were progressing and to handle the very substantial administrative details. I looked over my file folders from the committee while preparing for this interview and I was amazed at the volume of it all. By the way, it was also this committee that set up TUG, which explains the close relation TUG had with AMS in its early days. I felt strongly that an organized group of TeX users and TeXperts would be an invaluable resource. In fact, I believe that for any open source software project to prosper, it must have a well-organized body of enthusiastic volunteers to support it.

I don't recall who first floated the idea, perhaps Don Knuth, but the Committee on Composition Technology decided that the AMS should sponsor the development of a new mathematical font for use with TeX. The idea was that formulas set using this font should give the impression of carefully handwritten mathematics. Originally we proposed to call it the Einstein font, but later it was decided that it should be named after a mathematician rather than a physicist, and we eventually called it the Euler font and set up a Font Subcommittee to carry out its design. In connection with his work on Metafont, Knuth had become friendly with Hermann Zapf, one of the great type designers of the twentieth century, and he was able to recruit him for this project. The detailed design of the font was of course the work of Knuth and Zapf, but I again agreed to chair this committee to relieve them of the administrative details. I also recruited a few senior mathematicians whose taste I trusted and together we examined carefully all the symbols of the Euler font and gave our collective criticisms. It was a lot of work, but it was also fun, and worth it to be able to work with a great font artist. I'm not sure how widely Euler has been adopted, but Knuth used it in the book Concrete Mathematics that he co-authored with Ron Graham and Oren Patashnik, and I feel that it gives the book a very distinguished appearance.

DW:     Thank you very much for taking the time to tell your story.


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