Archive for Thursday, March 31, 2005

Blindness didn’t keep KU professor from true calling

Mathematician taught in Lawrence for 30 years

March 31, 2005


Numbers were constantly floating through Norberto Salinas' mind.

The former Kansas University professor pursued a career in mathematics, though he was blind from the age of 10 and couldn't see the equations he was solving.

"He was amazing, what he could visualize and keep in his head," said Robert Brown, a fellow KU math professor. "At a colloquium or a seminar, he was always right on top of what was being done, and he probably asked more pertinent questions than anyone."

Salinas died Monday in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 65.

He was a professor at KU from 1972 until fall 2002, when he took medical leave.

He lost his sight while growing up in Argentina, he told the Journal-World in a 1979 interview. A bout with chickenpox caused the nerves to detach from his retina.

He was the first blind student at the University of Buenos Aires. He received his math degree in 1962 and his physics degree in 1964.

"I first wanted to study physics, but they thought a blind person would do better in mathematics," he said in the article. "When I began studying physics, I didn't like it because I was spoiled by mathematics. It's a crazy thing; they don't care about logical arguments in physics."

He taught in Peru and at the University of Michigan before coming to KU. During his time in Lawrence, he taught several courses but focused mainly on complex variables and functional analysis.

He used a system of elastic bands stretched across the blackboard to make his writing straight. He put clothespins on the elastic bands to remind him where he'd already written.

Charles Himmelberg, a former chairman of the mathematics department, said Salinas also had a machine that could turn text into oral speech.

"He had amazing ears," Himmelberg said. "Of course, he wanted to read fast, so he'd turn this thing up so it sounded like Donald Duck talking fast. It sounded like Donald Duck to me, but he could follow it well."

Salinas also helped redesign mathematical symbols in Braille to be less complicated.

"He pretty much refused to play on his blindness," Brown said. "He could do just about anything anyone else could do."

Funeral arrangements haven't been announced.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.