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Respected professor accused of arson


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POSTED: Thursday, June 18, 2009

An Oahu grand jury indicted a tenured math professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa yesterday for arson in a case that his colleagues call a tragedy reminiscent of the movie “;A Beautiful Mind.”;

David Bleecker, 61, has taught and conducted research at UH-Manoa for more than 35 years and co-wrote a textbook on “;Basic Partial Differential Equations”; that is still used by undergraduates on campus.

Bleecker's specialty is differential geometry, an advanced form of mathematics that involves the theory of relativity, with elements of space, time and shape.

But even that description, another colleague said, is an “;oversimplification.”;

It's the same field studied by John Forbes Nash Jr., the model for the main character in the movie “;A Beautiful Mind.”; The movie tells the story of the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician at Princeton University and his struggle with mental illness.

Colleagues, most of whom asked not to be named, described Bleecker as extremely smart teacher and researcher with a good sense of humor. They said he mostly kept to himself and they didn't think he had any close relatives here. They also weren't sure if he was still married.

In 1999 Bleecker co-wrote a paper on “;the world's biggest taco,”; which won a national Mathematical Association of America award for writing.

In the paper, Bleecker and Larry Wallen used differential geometry to determine the optimum shape of a taco shell as a teaching exercise for students.

“;A taco is the solid formed by bending a circular tortilla partway around a cylinder and filling it in the obvious way—to the border and not beyond!”; they wrote.

Bleecker did not show any obvious symptoms of mental illness, colleagues said, until last year, about the time he was relieved of his teaching duties.

A spokeswoman for UH-Manoa confirmed that Bleecker is no longer teaching, but she said he is still receiving his salary.

Prosecutors yesterday said Bleecker is homeless. A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety said he remains in custody at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, apparently unable or unwilling to post $15,000 bail.

Police arrested Bleecker about 4 p.m. June 11 at a bus stop across the street from campus after someone attempted to set fire to his office on the third floor of the Physical Sciences Building.

According to court documents, witnesses said a man, walking with a hunched back and wearing a white aloha shirt, shorts and slippers, carried a glass bottle filled with orange liquid into the building about 2:45 p.m.

The man complained about his treatment at the university after teaching for 30 years.

As the man left the campus, he told another witness, “;I just burned down my office. Don't tell anyone.”;

A police officer saw a hunched Bleecker crossing University Avenue. Bleecker was carrying an aloha shirt with a lighter in its front pocket. Witnesses said he was the man they saw entering and leaving the building.

A UH-Manoa security officer put out the fire and estimated damage to the door of room 305, Bleecker's office, and some nearby bulletin boards and posters at $8,000.

A student post on the Web site Ratemyprofessors.com said: “;His class is always the highlight of my day. What other math teacher shows movies and comedy clips instead of boring lectures? Anyway, you actually have to try in order to succeed so it's not like you can just BS everything,”;

Karl Dovermann, assistant chairman of the mathematics department at UH-Manoa, said: “;I want to emphasize he (Bleecker) is a good mathematician and still is. ... If I talk to him about mathematics, his mind is as clear and sharp as ever.”;

The contrast between the David Bleecker friends knew as a colleague and the man accused of trying to set fire to his office is as striking as the difference between the clean-cut man with glasses in his photo on the Mathematics Department Web site and his bearded, disheveled appearance Monday in District Court.

Several colleagues said they appealed to Bleecker to get psychiatric help, but he refused. They are still puzzled about why his behavior changed so suddenly.

“;We would like to know what happened and we don't,”; Dovermann said.

In “;A Beautiful Mind,”; Forbes, played by Russell Crowe, was able to overcome his schizophrenia and lead a productive life. His friends hope Bleecker's story—like the movie—will also eventually have a happy ending.