Kenneth Appel Dies: Mathematician Ushered Computer Into Everyday Use

Tuesday, 30 Apr 2013 12:06 PM

By Alexandra Ward

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Kenneth I. Appel, a mathematician who first demonstrated that computer calculations could prove a mathematical theorem, died April 19 in New Hampshire. He was 80.

Appel was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in October and succumbed to the disease earlier this month in Dover, N.H., his son Andrew told the New York Times.

In 1976, as faculty members at the University of Illinois at Urbana, Appel and Wolfgang Haken used 1,200 hours of calculations from an IBM computer to prove the four-color conjecture theory — the idea that a flat map can be colored with just four colors, so that contiguous countries have different colors. The men received the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Programming Society's Delbert Ray Fulkerson prize in 1979 for their achievement.

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"The proof of the four-color conjecture is unlikely to be of applied significance," a New York Times article said at the time. "Nevertheless, what has been accomplished is a major intellectual feat. It gives us an important new insight into the nature of two-dimensional space and of the ways in which such space can be broken into discrete portions."

Appel and Haken's work helped usher the computer into everyday use, as many mathematicians at the time were weary to trust a machine to do their advanced calculations.

A longtime educator who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Appel went on to chair the mathematics department at the University of New Hampshire. After retiring in 2003, Appel counseled students at Dover High School and served on the Dover Board of Education.

Despite his impressive accomplishments in the mathematics field, Appel was always a kind of mentor to educators younger than him. University of New Hampshire math professor Kevin Short, who worked under Appel in the 1990s, called him "an incredibly humble man."

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"One of the things he prided himself on was trying to help other faculty members in general, but in particular, young faculty members, to get them started in a research career," Short told the Associated Press.

Appel is survived by his wife Carole, sons Andrew and Peter, sister Lois Green, and five grandchildren.

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