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Paul Joseph Cohen (April 2, 1934 – March 23, 2007)[1][2] was an American mathematician best known for his proof of the independence of the continuum hypothesis and the axiom of choice from Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory, the most widely accepted axiomatization of set theory.

Early years

Cohen was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, into a Jewish family. He graduated in 1950 from Stuyvesant High School in New York City.[2]

Cohen next studied at the Brooklyn College from 1950 to 1953, but he left before earning his bachelor's degree when he learned that he could start his graduate studies at the University of Chicago with just two years of college. At Chicago, Cohen completed his master's degree in mathematics in 1954 and his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1958, under supervision of the Professor of Mathematics, Antoni Zygmund. The subject of his doctoral thesis was Topics in the Theory of Uniqueness of Trigonometric Series.[3]

His contributions to mathematics

Cohen is noted for developing a mathematical technique called forcing, which he used to prove that neither the continuum hypothesis (CH), nor the axiom of choice, can be proved from the standard Zermelo–Fraenkel axioms (ZF) of set theory. In conjunction with the earlier work of Gödel, this showed that both of these statements are logically independent of the ZF axioms: these statements can be neither proved nor disproved from these axioms. In this sense, the continuum hypothesis is undecidable, and it is probably the most widely-known example of a natural statement that is independent from the standard ZF axioms of set theory.

For his result on the continuum hypothesis, Cohen won the Fields Medal in mathematics in 1966, and also the National Medal of Science in 1967[4]. The Fields Medal that Cohen won continues to be the only Fields Medal to be awarded for a work in mathematical logic.

Cohen was also awarded the Bôcher Memorial Prize in mathematical analysis in 1964 for his paper "On a conjecture by Littlewood and idempotent measures".

Cohen was a professor at Stanford University, where he supervised Peter Sarnak's graduate research, among those of other students.

Angus MacIntyre of the University of London stated about Cohen: "He was dauntingly clever, and one would have had to be naïve or exceptionally altruistic to put one's 'hardest problem' to the Paul I knew in the '60s." He went on to compare Cohen to Kurt Gödel, saying: "Nothing more dramatic than their work has happened in the history of the subject."[5] Gödel himself wrote a letter to Cohen in 1963, a draft of which stated, "Let me repeat that it is really a delight to read your proof of the ind[ependence] of the cont[inuum] hyp[othesis]. I think that in all essential respects you have given the best possible proof & this does not happen frequently. Reading your proof had a similarly pleasant effect on me as seeing a really good play."[6]

On the Continuum Hypothesis

While studying the continuum hypothesis, Cohen is quoted as saying that he "had the feeling that people thought the problem was hopeless, since there was no new way of constructing models of set theory. Indeed," he said in an interview in 1985, "they thought you had to be slightly crazy even to think about the problem."[7]

"A point of view which the author [Cohen] feels may eventually come to be accepted is that CH is obviously false. The main reason one accepts the axiom of infinity is probably that we feel it absurd to think that the process of adding only one set at a time can exhaust the entire universe. Similarly with the higher axioms of infinity. Now \aleph_1 is the cardinality of the set of countable ordinals, and this is merely a special and the simplest way of generating a higher cardinal. The set C [the continuum] is, in contrast, generated by a totally new and more powerful principle, namely the power set axiom. It is unreasonable to expect that any description of a larger cardinal which attempts to build up that cardinal from ideas deriving from the replacement axiom can ever reach C. Thus C is greater than \aleph_n, \aleph_\omega, \aleph_a, where a = \aleph_\omega, etc. This point of view regards C as an incredibly rich set given to us by one bold new axiom, which can never be approached by any piecemeal process of construction. Perhaps later generations will see the problem more clearly and express themselves more eloquently."[8]

An "enduring and powerful product" of Cohen's work on the Continuum Hypothesis, and one that has been used by "countless mathematicians"[7] is known as forcing, and it is used to construct mathematical models to test a given hypothesis for truth or falsehood.

Shortly before his death, Cohen gave a fascinating lecture describing his solution to problem of the Continuum Hypothesis at the Gödel centennial conference, in Vienna 2006. A video of this lecture is now available online.[9]


1. ^ "In Memory of ...". American Mathematical Society. Retrieved 2007-10-31.
2. ^ a b Levy, Dawn (2007-03-28). "Paul Cohen, winner of world’s top mathematics prize, dies at 72". Stanford Report. Retrieved 2007-10-31.
3. ^ Paul J. Cohen (1958), Topics in the theory of uniqueness of trigonometrical series ,
4. ^ National Science Foundation - The President's National Medal of Science
5. ^ Davidson, Keay (2007-03-30). "Paul Cohen -- Stanford professor, acclaimed mathematician". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-10-31.
6. ^ Solomon Feferman, The Gödel Editorial Project: A synopsis [1] p. 11.
7. ^ a b Pearce, Jeremy (2007-04-02). "Paul J. Cohen, Mathematics Trailblazer, Dies at 72". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-31.
8. ^ Cohen, P.. Set Theory and the Continuum Hypothesis. pp. 151.
9. ^ Paul Cohen lecture video, six parts, Gödel Centennial, Vienna 2006

Further reading

* Akihiro Kanamori, "Cohen and Set Theory", The Bulletin of Symbolic Logic, Volume 14, Number 3, Sept. 2008.
* Sarnak, Peter (December 2007). "Remembering Paul Cohen" (PDF). MAA FOCUS (Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America) 27 (9): 21–22. ISSN 0731-2040. Retrieved 2009-05-31.

External links

* O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., " ", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews, .Cohen, Paul
* Paul Joseph Cohen at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
* - a commemorative website celebrating the life of Paul Cohen
* Stanford obituary


Mathematics Encyclopedia

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