It's terribly sad that mathematician John Nash and his wife have died. However, in the NY Times obit, a Harvard math professor says something wrong and deeply misleading about J.S. Bach that needs to be corrected and addressed boldly.
From the article:
“[Nash's] achievements were the more remarkable, colleagues said, for being contained in a small handful of papers published before he was 30.
Jane Austen wrote six novels, Bach wrote six partitas,” said Barry Mazur, a professor of mathematics at Harvard who was a freshman at M.I.T. when Dr. Nash taught there. “I think Nash’s pure mathematical contributions are on that level. Very, very few papers he wrote on different subjects, but the ones that had impact had incredible impact.”"
It's a very nice quote, and I'm not interested in publicly shaming someone. But can you seriously say that "Bach wrote six partitas" in a Times piece and not be corrected or fact-checked? Perhaps he was referring to the six partitas for piano. But many know that Bach wrote more (three more for violin, e.g.), and that his general output of music was beyond prolific--not something that can really be compared to anyone. He didn't only write partitas or come up with a few world-changing ideas. Bach wrote a massive amount of music and changed the way western music worked forever.
This is not to take anything away from Professor Nash. But it's amazing what gets through today without a fact-check. Sure, it was a compliment, and a genuine one. But even those comments need to be assessed. However, the facts are that people both don't care enough to do that, and that they don't know enough about subjects like Bach to even think to double-check a Harvard math professor.
Obits are saved forever, and become "fact." One day, in 25 years, a kid will read this obit while working on a project and perhaps use that quote. Or it will end up on whatever is the next Wikipedia. This obit may change some people's perceptions of a subject forever, and it would have taken a few minutes to make sure this man's quote was correct -- and to perhaps phone him to revise it.
p.s. I don't want to make this specific to the Times. I write for the Times. I have great editors at the Times, some who've taught me more about journalism than anyone else. This is about a broad cultural laziness that has become an epidemic and will literally alter what's considered "factual" forever.
Update, 4:21 pm Pacific Time: The paper changed the piece -- and the professor's quote -- and removed all mention of Bach without a correction. See image below: