Department of Mathematics and Statistics

A Necessary Balance: Alec and Harry Aitken 1920-1935
P.C. Fenton

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3.   To Edinburgh

Aitken resigned his positions at the High School and University and prepared for a quick departure, aiming to make it to Edinburgh for the start of the autumn term. Winifred’s commitments at the University kept her in Dunedin until the end of the academic year – she was all of Botany and there was no stand-in. They would meet at Southampton in mid-November.

Leave-takings completed, Aitken travelled by train from Dunedin to Auckland, where he was met by Pearl and her fiancée, Herb Kayes. On 7 August 1923 he boarded the S.S. Hunter, nominally as ship’s purser. From near Panama he wrote to Pearl:

I think you should be very happy married to such a good fellow, and I wish I were in New Zealand to see the happy event. I myself count the best day of all my life the day on which I was joined forever to my Winifred, and I could not wish you better than that you should in later years have reason to think the same thoughts in retrospect.30

His letters to Pearl are invariably tender and candid. Those to Les are more man-to-man, as to one with whom one can share the unpleasant realities of life, while to Harry he showed a nearly paternal solicitude. In his diary entries and notebooks however, Aitken alone, he was analytical and precise. His observations are frequently startling but seldom separable from himself. A telephotic image of a fellow passenger on the ship:

Wiseman, sitting opposite, diminished in size and receded until he seemed to be a small picture on the wall

seems to express, albeit in an exaggerated form, the relative significance of his inner and outer worlds. His personal writing is increasingly concerned with the landscape of his inner life. Ian Hunter, a psychologist who tested Aitken’s powers of memory and mental calculation in the early 1960s, commented:

His interests were in ideas and in ways of understanding things. One of the things he was interested to understand was the markedly unconventional mind he had built over his lifetime. ‘The weight of experience can at times be a burden’31 because these experiences had, to some extent, a life of their own: they often presented him with sudden, unexpected solutions to mathematical problems; deprived him of sleep; and seemed to demand that they be organized into harmoniously coherent patterns. He was intrigued by mental processes in general and, in particular, by the seemingly mysterious ways of his own mental processes.32

30  27 August 1923.
31  This is a remark of Aitken’s.
32  I.M.L. Hunter, An exceptional memory, Br. J. Psychology 68 (1977), 155-164.

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