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Colleagues pay tribute to Sir Michael Atiyah 1929–2019

Colleagues have paid tribute to Sir Michael Atiyah, OM, FRS, who died on 11 January 2019 at the age of 89.

Sir Michael was an undergraduate and graduate student at Trinity from 1949 to 1955 before embarking on a distinguished career as a mathematician, serving as President of the Royal Society (1990-1995), and winning many prestigious awards including the Fields Medal (1966), the Copley medal (1998), and the Abel Prize (2004). He was Master of Trinity College from 1990 to 1997.

Michael Francis Atiyah was born on 22 April 1929 in London to Jean Levens, from Yorkshire and Scotland, and Edward Atiyah, from Lebanon. Michael went to school in Sudan and Egypt before returning aged 16 to England where he attended Manchester Grammar School.

Gary Gibbons, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, recalls:

Michael came up to Trinity in 1949 after two years National Service in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, to read Mathematics. Ironically in view of his future achievements, at that time he had no great interest in Physics and while enjoying Chemistry baulked at all the memory work required for Inorganic Chemistry. Mathematics was already his forte and by his second year he had published his first paper. After completing the undergraduate course he became a Research student of Sir William Hodge.

Portrait of Sir Michael by Michael Noakes

On completing his thesis, entitled ‘Some Applications of Topological Methods in Algebraic Geometry,’ Michael spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton as a Commonwealth Fellow where he encountered three people who were to play a key role in his future mathematical career: Raoul Bott, Isadore Singer and Friedrich Hirzebruch.

‘Between them they developed powerful qualitative, topological, techniques for classifying surfaces and their analogues in higher dimensions. Starting with information about the overall shape of the geometrical object under consideration they succeeded in extracting a surprisingly large amount of precise information about the solutions of the equations that define them or are naturally associated with them,’ said Professor Gibbons.

In 1966, Michael Atiyah was awarded the most prestigious prize in Mathematics, the Fields Medal, for ‘what was in effect a mathematical revolution.’

Professor Gibbons said that the significance of these methods for problems in Elementary Particle Physics, and attempts to combine Quantum Theory with Einstein’s theory of gravity became apparent about 10 years later.

Michael was soon in great demand from theoretical physicists as a lucid and enthusiastic expositor of his methods and ideas. Despite his initial aversion he soon succumbed to the attractions of the subject to the extent that fruitful collaborations resulted with some of its major figures. In short: Michael’s life-work has changed the face of both Mathematics and Theoretical Physics.

The Royal Society door
The Royal Society

The mathematician was also an excellent leader and administrator. When Sir Michael returned to Trinity as Master of the College in 1990, he also took on the Presidency of the Royal Society.

Lord Rees of Ludlow, an Honorary Fellow and Master of Trinity (2004-2012) paid tribute to the pivotal role Sir Michael played at the Sir Royal Society.

‘Not least through his wide travels, his energy and his eloquence, he enhanced the Society’s influence, enlivened its formal events and opened up the society via overdue reforms such has electing rather than nominating its council and by promoting outreach and diversity.’

He was actively engaged in social and political campaigns and was not afraid to speak his mind, said Lord Rees.

His valedictory lecture at the Royal Society was rendered specially memorable by his impassioned plea for disarmament – and by the eloquent tribute that followed, given by Joseph Rotblat, founder of the Pugwash movement (aimed at bringing together scholars and public figures to work toward reducing the danger of armed conflict and to seek solutions to global security threats).

Sir Michael succeeded Rotblat as President of International Pugwash (1997-2002). ‘He campaigned for Scottish Independence, primarily because it could lead to the closure of the Trident Submarine base at Faslane,’ said Lord Rees.

He also became Founder-Director of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences. ‘Michael’s globally-acclaimed eminence, combined with his intellectual breadth and conviviality set the Institute on the course that has continued ever since,’ said Lord Rees.

As an admirer of James Clerk Maxwell, the first Cavendish Professor and a Fellow of Trinity, Sir Michael campaigned and raised the funds for the statue of Maxwell that now stands in George Street in Edinburgh.

Fellow of Trinity and current President of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan, described Sir Michael as ‘a great mathematician who was known for his contributions in the areas of geometry and topology. He was also a wonderful person who, as President of the Royal Society, showed that he was a true internationalist and a fervent supporter for investing in talent – themes which resonate very clearly today.’

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