In Collegial Memory

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December 2021 TOC icon
December 2021 (Vol. 53, No. 6)

Picture of Robert DawsonThe singer/songwriter Tom Lehrer (a mathematician himself) once wrote:

When you attend a funeral
It is sad to think that sooner or later 
those you love will do the same for you.

But indeed they will; and one of the many functions of the Notes is to remember those of our fellowship who have left us.

We have, I think, a rather special role to play in this regard. Families or friends often arrange for an obituary in the local newspaper, or on a funeral home’s web page. But, as may be imagined, these tributes concentrate on the side of the deceased best known to their family, to neighbours, and to members of their church, curling club, or klezmer band. A few of our readers may be privileged to know them through these circles, but to most of us the late Dr. Mehitabel O’Lafferty will be the woman who taught us ring theory, who organized that great conference at BIRS, or who gave that memorable talk on presubmersive duomodular graphs. Those aspects of her life won’t always be uppermost in the mind of a bereaved relative to whom she was Aunt Mitty who liked trail-riding.

So, when we can, we run obituaries in the Notes, giving a mathematician’s-eye-view of the life that our late colleague lived.  It’s our privilege to do this; unlike the local paper, we do not charge. Our usual policy is to concentrate on Canadian mathematicians, loosely defined, and on members of the CMS, past or present. If we tried to run an obituary for everybody, worldwide, who has contributed to mathematics in some way, they would dominate the journal and we’d have to rename it the CMS Obits. But we can certainly provide a place where the Canadian mathematical community can say farewell to its own.

Like any local newspaper, though,  we depend on readers’ input to do this. When a colleague dies, please make sure we find out (not every academic’s departure makes the national news.) If you are able to write a tribute yourself, we’d be very grateful; a suggestion of somebody else who might will also be appropriate. Even helping us round up a good photograph is always much appreciated. Since we went paperless, there is no page count problem; we can almost always run an obituary in the next issue.

I was recently asked an excellent question: what is the desired balance among lay biographical detail, a summary of professional work, and personal reminiscences? I would say the first should probably be in the mathematical tradition of the minimal object that will do the job properly, as it’s already been done elsewhere. The second, like a good review of a paper, should be economical but not scant; and the third should partake of the spirit of a wake, conjuring up and passing on good memories freely. But the important thing is that you write what you’d like people to recall (or, for those not fortunate enough to have made their acquaintance, learn) about your late colleague. Write what seems good to you: there is no fixed template.

And may you – and your colleagues – not need this information for many years to come!

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