Sir Michael Atiyah, OM

Pres­i­dent of the Royal So­ci­ety and math­e­ma­ti­cian who pro­vided the­o­ret­i­cal tools for par­ti­cle physics

The Daily Telegraph - - Obituaries -

SIR MICHAEL ATIYAH, the math­e­ma­ti­cian and for­mer Pres­i­dent of the Royal So­ci­ety, who has died aged 89, was widely re­garded as Bri­tain’s great­est liv­ing math­e­ma­ti­cian. Atiyah was an ex­pert in the ab­struse field of al­ge­braic topol­ogy, which con­cerns the in­ter­con­nec­tions be­tween equa­tions and ge­o­met­ri­cal shapes. He was in­ter­ested in the ar­cane math­e­mat­i­cal prop­er­ties of these links, and his first ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion (in col­lab­o­ra­tion with F Hirze­bruch) was the de­vel­op­ment of a new and pow­er­ful an­a­lyt­i­cal tech­nique known as K-the­ory.

Sub­se­quently, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with IM Singer, he es­tab­lished an­other im­por­tant an­a­lyt­i­cal tool known as the In­dex the­o­rem.

These the­o­ries be­came valu­able tools for solv­ing prob­lems not just in math­e­mat­ics but in the­o­ret­i­cal physics, es­pe­cially par­ti­cle physics. The the­o­ries of su­per­space and su­per­grav­ity, and the string the­ory of fun­da­men­tal par­ti­cles, were all ar­eas of the­o­ret­i­cal physics which were de­vel­oped us­ing Atiyah’s ideas.

One of the fields in which his work has been ap­plied is in the search for the “Holy Grail” of physics, a sin­gle the­ory that would ac­count for all the forces and par­ti­cles in the uni­verse, an en­deav­our which among other things rou­tinely calls on the prop­er­ties of 11-di­men­sional spa­ces.

Atiyah’s brother Joe re­marked: “He has been de­scribed to me by more than one pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics as the best math­e­ma­ti­cian in this coun­try since Sir Isaac New­ton.”

Michael Fran­cis Atiyah was born in Lon­don on April 22 1929, the son of a dis­tin­guished Le­banese civil ser­vant and a Scot­tish artist. He was ed­u­cated in Egypt, at Vic­to­ria Col­lege, and later at Manch­ester Gram­mar School.

He claimed never to have been very happy with sci­ence at school. “I wasn’t keen on physics,” he said, “be­cause I wasn’t very good at prac­ti­cals. I did some se­ri­ous chem­istry when I was 15 and that was ex­cit­ing. But the thing that put me off was in­or­ganic chem­istry, where there were masses of facts you had to know and an aw­ful lot of mem­ory work that didn’t ap­peal to me.”

In math­e­mat­ics, how­ever, he found his true métier: “In math­e­mat­ics, if you un­der­stand the prin­ci­ples, you get along fine. You don’t need a good mem­ory for math­e­mat­ics.”

Atiyah wrote his first orig­i­nal paper, con­cern­ing a branch of geom­e­try, while still a sec­ond-year un­der­grad­u­ate at Trin­ity Col­lege, Cam­bridge. That, and a dou­ble First, con­vinced him to dig more deeply into math­e­mat­ics.

After com­plet­ing his doc­tor­ate, he be­came a fel­low of Trin­ity in 1954, then spent 1955 as a Com­mon­wealth Fel­low at the In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Study at Prince­ton.

Re­turn­ing to Cam­bridge, he was a col­lege lec­turer from 1957 and a Fel­low of Pem­broke Col­lege from 1958. In 1961 he moved to a read­er­ship at Ox­ford Univer­sity, where he be­came a Fel­low of St Cather­ine’s Col­lege. He was elected a Fel­low of the Royal So­ci­ety in 1962, aged 32.

From 1963 un­til 1969, Atiyah was Sav­il­ian Pro­fes­sor of Geom­e­try at Ox­ford. In 1969 he be­came Pro­fes­sor of Math­e­mat­ics at the In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Study at Prince­ton. Three years later, he re­turned to Eng­land, be­com­ing a Royal So­ci­ety re­search pro­fes­sor at Ox­ford.

Ox­ford was to re­main Atiyah’s base un­til 1990, when he was elected Master of Trin­ity Col­lege, Cam­bridge, and ap­pointed the first di­rec­tor of the new Isaac New­ton In­sti­tute for Math­e­mat­i­cal Sciences in Cam­bridge.

De­spite the ab­struse na­ture of his field, Atiyah was no un­worldly aca­demic, but had a sound in­stinct for pub­lic re­la­tions. He was also a man who be­lieved strongly that sci­ence could not be di­vorced from moral­ity.

He ar­gued that sci­en­tists had a duty to voice their con­cerns on is­sues re­lat­ing to the ap­pli­ca­tion of sci­ence and that they should dis­tance them­selves from gov­ern­ments and demon­strate in­de­pen­dence of thought.

From 1991 to 1995, when he was Pres­i­dent of the Royal So­ci­ety, tra­di­tion­ally a non-con­tro­ver­sial ap­point­ment, he used his po­si­tion to launch a se­ries of scathing at­tacks on the Gov­ern­ment’s ne­glect of Bri­tain’s sci­ence base and set up a com­mit­tee to ad­dress key is­sues such as the brain drain.

In 1995 he launched an un­prece­dented at­tack on Bri­tain’s nu­clear weapons pro­gramme, de­scrib­ing it as “fun­da­men­tally mis­guided, a to­tal waste of re­sources and a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in our rel­a­tive eco­nomic de­cline”.

He was equally dis­mis­sive of Bri­tain’s con­ven­tional arms in­dus­try: “As a sci­en­tist, I can­not by my si­lence con­done a pol­icy which uses the sci­en­tific skills of this coun­try to ex­port po­ten­tial death and de­struc­tion to poorer parts of the world.”

De­spite his high pub­lic pro­file, Atiyah was not a par­tic­u­larly good com­mit­tee man; he found it dif­fi­cult to deal with peo­ple who held views op­pos­ing his own. In 1997 he re­signed as Master of Trin­ity ear­lier than had been ex­pected after a dis­agree­ment with mem­bers of the Col­lege’s gar­den com­mit­tee over a plant­ing scheme for the Fel­lows’ gar­den.

Atiyah re­ceived nu­mer­ous hon­ours dur­ing his ca­reer. There is no No­bel Prize for math­e­mat­ics, but in 1966 he won the dis­ci­pline’s equiv­a­lent, the Field Medal, which was awarded at the In­ter­na­tional con­gress of Math­e­ma­ti­cians in Moscow. He re­ceived the Royal Medal of the Royal So­ci­ety in 1968, the Cop­ley Medal in 1988 and the Abel Prize in 2004.

In Septem­ber 2018, at the Hei­del­berg Lau­re­ate Fo­rum, Atiyah claimed to have come up with a sim­ple proof of the Riemann hy­poth­e­sis, one of math­e­mat­ics’s most no­to­ri­ously un­yield­ing prob­lems. His claim was met with scep­ti­cism.

He was elected a for­eign mem­ber of na­tional academies in more than 10 coun­tries and re­ceived honorary de­grees from more than 20 uni­ver­si­ties around the world. He wrote many orig­i­nal pa­pers in math­e­mat­i­cal jour­nals and sev­eral books on math­e­mat­ics, in­clud­ing The Geom­e­try and Physics of Knots in 1992 and We are all Math­e­ma­ti­cians in 2007.

Michael Atiyah served as Chan­cel­lor of Le­ices­ter Univer­sity from 1995 un­til 2005 and as Pres­i­dent of the Royal So­ci­ety of Ed­in­burgh from 2005 un­til 2008. He was knighted in 1983 and be­came a mem­ber of the Or­der of Merit in 1992. In 2011 he was made a Grand Of­ficier of the Lé­gion d’honneur.

He mar­ried, in 1955, Lily Brown; she died in March 2018. They had three sons, one of whom died on a walk­ing hol­i­day in the Pyre­nees in 2002.

Sir Michael Atiyah, born April 22 1929, died Jan­uary 11 2019

Sir Michael Atiyah in 2004: ‘the best math­e­ma­ti­cian in Bri­tain since Sir Isaac New­ton’

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