By B.A. Van Sise

In recreational mathematics—math one does for fun as opposed to, say, unhappy obligation—there is a puzzle of sorts called the magic square.

There are many kinds of them—semimagic squares, orthomagic squares, multimagic squares, trivial magic squares, normal magic squares, most perfect magic squares—but the idea remains the same: imagine a tic-tac-toe box in which numbers are placed into all positions, and adding or multiplying or working the numbers in any row, column or diagonal results in the same result. The ancients used them for astrology; the medievalists for architecture. Today, people who love math do them as a thought experiment.

Henry Ruston loves math. “I used to read math books for fun as a kid, before the war,” he says. “I was always curious about physics, I was always curious about numbers. I was always curious about how things work. Mathematics ties it all together.”

B.A. Van Sise portrait of Dr. Henry Ruston and Charlotte Meyers
Henry Ruston with Charlotte Meyers, 2021, portrait by B.A. Van Sise (American, 1983).

When he ended up as a slave laborer at a propeller factory, the overseer also loved math, and Henry would observe the man, if this is a man, working on magic squares. Henry could see him struggling, would teach him methods to build and solve puzzles. Henry gave the overseer help. The overseer gave Henry extra food. In math, Henry survived. In math, Henry was invited to life.

He was liberated as a late teen with a 5th grade education, but went on to earn a high school diploma in Germany before arriving in the Bronx to take a job in the garment industry. In 1950 he enrolled at the University of Michigan, turning down two west coast colleges. “I didn’t know the difference between any of them,” he recalls, “but Michigan was the closest to the Bronx. So I went to Michigan.” He got degrees in mathematics and electrical engineering, and went to graduate school at Columbia, closer still to the Bronx, before going back to Michigan to get his PhD. Graduating, he made his way back to New York, beginning a long career as a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the New York University’s school of engineering.

“I like younger people, I like teaching them mathematics, we speak the same language,” he says.

“Mathematics is the universal language.”

Stories Survive is made possible by the Goldie and David Blanksteen Foundation.