Michael Atiyah, mathematician in Newton’s footsteps, dies at 89

The Royal Society in London, of which he was president in the 1990s, confirmed the death but gave no details. Atiyah, who was retired, had been an honorary professor in the School of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh.

Atiyah, who spent many years at Oxford and Cambridge universities, revealed an unforeseen connection between mathematics and physics through a theorem he proved in collaboration with Isadore Singer, one of the most important mathematicians of the last half of the 20th century.

His work with Singer, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led to the flowering of string theory and gauge theory as ways to understand the structure and dynamics of the universe, and has provided powerful tools for both mathematicians and theoretical physicists.

“He has heavily influenced the whole contemporary development of how math and physics have interacted,” physicist Edward Witten, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, said in an interview for this obituary in 2015. Atiyah spent a good part of his career at the institute.

Newton and his contemporary, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, established the first major bridge between mathematics and physics by creating calculus and showing that it could describe physical attributes like velocity and acceleration. Atiyah and Singer discovered a similar but far more subtle connection.

Atiyah was also active among scientists in promoting peace. From 1997 to 2002 he was president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an organisation that brings together scholars and public figures with the aim of curtailing armed conflicts around the world. (It takes its name from the site of its first meeting, in 1957, in the village of Pugwash, Nova Scotia. In 1995, the group and its founder, Joseph Rotblat, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.)

During his tenure at Pugwash, Atiyah worked to defuse a nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan and to reduce tensions in the Middle East. Earlier, as president of the Royal Society (1990-1995), he publicly criticised the British nuclear program, arguing that it was a dangerous waste of scientific resources.

Atiyah received the two highest honours in mathematics: the Fields Medal, in 1966, and the Abel Prize, in 2004. Several colleagues of his have received Fields Medals for discoveries building on his work as well. He was knighted in 1983 and made a grand officer of the French Legion of Honour in 2011.

Atiyah, a relatively short and jolly man who had gone mostly bald as a young man, was renowned for his energy and a commanding voice, most notably in his lectures.

“He could hypnotise you into believing you understood something,” said Graeme Segal, a former student of his and now an emeritus fellow in mathematics at Oxford. “He would make you think that everything was possible, and there were all these wonderful ideas, and you could put them together and do something with them.”

Michael Francis Atiyah was born on April 22, 1929, in London to the former Jean Levens, a Scot, and Edward Atiyah, a Lebanese. His parents had met while his father was a …read more

Source:: Daily times


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