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I am a student in Mathematics. There is a field I'm interested in (possibly enough to make it my main research area) which is not studied in my city. I've read a lecture notes on this topic a few months ago and sent the author a list of typos/inaccuracies I'd found. He responded in a positive way. When I was looking him up I found out he is terminally ill which, besides being extremely tragic, prevented me from asking for his guidance.

Since then I brought him up in a conversation a few times and people told me that it is very important for someone with terminal illness to know they are appreciated. I am thinking about requesting some help with my study of the field from him. However, I believe, the author was a great professor and mathematician so he probably has a lot still going on and I shouldn't bother him. Thus, my first question is: is it okay to ask him for help in this situation?.

If the answer is yes, what should I ask of him?. For example, would it be appropriate to inquire if he knows a colleague who could potentially become my adviser? Or perhaps I can ask about current research? I already used the opportunity to ask for some literature in the first letter.

To state it more clearly, is there a favour/question I can ask that is

  1. Appropriate for the level of contact we had;
  2. Easy for him to do and hopefully would make him feel appreciated;
  3. Would be helpful for my own studies/career?

The last (and least) issue: in his email he thanked me for the list of typos and said that because of illness it would take him some time to implement the changes. It's been two months and the text is still in the first version. Should I offer assistance with this?

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    "It's been two months and the text is still in the first version." I was a bit jolted when I read this, since when you earlier wrote "I've read a text on this topic", I assumed you were talking about a book, but apparently this is not even a published paper. You may want to rewrite the earlier part to be more specific, such as "the unpublished notes on the internet" (or whatever it is that "text" refers to). – Dave L Renfro Oct 26 '17 at 16:18
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Edit: note that my original answer below addresses OP’s original version of the question, which has now been edited.

To address the current version of the question: yes, it is okay to ask for help, but your motivation should be wanting to get help, not artificially creating feelings of “being appreciated”. If you want to let someone know they are appreciated, just tell them that that’s the case. And if you don’t know what questions you should ask, to me that is a sign that there isn’t really anything that you particularly need help with, so the best thing to do is to not ask any questions.

Finally, the fact that you know the professor is ill shouldn’t change anything about the nature of the questions you should ask him. Just ask what you want to know, whether it’s an easy or difficult question to answer. I am confident that if the professor finds the question too burdensome to answer given his illness, he will either not respond or will simply tell you that he is unable to help.


My original answer:

Maybe I’m misunderstanding your intent, but the way your question is phrased (particularly your statement “my main goal here is to make the professor feel appreciated” and the slightly absurd list of hypothetical questions you are thinking of asking the professor) I get the impression that you’re thinking of inventing a fake request for help, that is, a question whose answer doesn’t actually interest you very much, out of the belief that the professor will feel “appreciated” when receiving the question.

If this interpretation is correct, my strong advice would be: no, it’s not okay, so don’t do it. The reason is that this would be dishonest (and somewhat transparently so, for some of the questions you proposed - not to mention that you’re publicly posting your plan here using your real name...). I can’t claim to know what it feels like to be terminally ill, but as a general rule people don’t appreciate other people being dishonest with them, so I think your question could end up having quite a different effect than what you intend.

Here’s an alternative suggestion however: if you want the professor to feel appreciated, why not simply tell him that you appreciate him (assuming that’s correct)? And certainly I think it’s okay to offer to help him in any way you can — again, assuming the offer is genuine and you intend to follow up in case he takes you up on it. It’s also okay to ask him a question if you genuinely want to know the answer, but you should be asking it because you want to know the answer. Please don’t invent questions solely for the purpose of making someone feel appreciated; I find that idea patronizing, offensive, and highly misguided, despite the fact that the intentions behind it are good.

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    I just joined to up vote this answer... Though I'm sure there will be some contributions for me in the long haul. This very situation happened with a professor I knew during my undergraduate studies. She was terminally ill and a student wanted to lift up her spirits by asking her some technical questions that didn't really interest the student but wanted her to feel useful. She quickly saw his true motives and was quite offended. Later on (before she passed), she recalled this story with me and felt that she was the subject of a pity party. Lesson learned: don't do it this way – rayryeng - Reinstate Monica Oct 26 '17 at 17:09
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    @Petr you are entitled to your opinion about how to best make someone feel appreciated, but respectfully I disagree: asking disingenuous questions of someone is simply a terrible way to make them feel appreciated. Offering help is better, but the truth is, this is someone you never met and who doesn’t know you or likely cares very much who you are. He has his family and friends and a limited time to do things that are important to him. Probably nothing you do or say will make much of a difference. But whatever you do, please express your intentions honestly or you’ll do more harm than good. – Dan Romik Oct 26 '17 at 18:49
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    @rayryeng thanks a lot for sharing your experience. I hope you’ll end up contributing in other questions (but be careful not to get sucked in too deeply like some of us... ;-)) – Dan Romik Oct 26 '17 at 18:51
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    "Dan, when you put it like this I can't help but agree. Thanks again! – Petr Naryshkin Oct 26 '17 at 18:55
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    Agree 100% with both the original answer and the new answer, and like so many great answers this is not limited to Academia. Unless you know for a fact that someone will unduly burden themselves (i.e. they can't say no) in order to assist you, there's no need to change the course of action based on an illness, whether that means adding or removing actions. – corsiKa Oct 26 '17 at 23:28
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I think it would be perfectly fine to ask him for help, just as you would from someone that is not terminally ill. Amos Tversky (a famous professor) made every effort to conceal the fact that he was terminally ill from melanoma from most of his colleagues, until this was no longer possible. (Not everyone may take the same approach, but it seems that he is not abandoning academic pursuits entirely, since he was at least willing to try to act on the list of typos you gave.)

However, I think it would be best to confine yourself to a list of questions that can be quickly and easily answered. He probably has a lot going on (even without his illness), and I would ask a lengthy question only if he were the only expert in this area.

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