Sir Christopher Zeeman, 1925-2016

A renowned topologist who established the University of Warwick’s Mathematical Institute as a major centre has died

March 3, 2016
Obituary: Sir Christopher Zeeman, 1925-2016

Sir Christopher Zeeman was born in Japan to a Danish father and a British mother on 4 February 1925 and was brought to England a year later.

After national service in the Royal Air Force, he studied mathematics at the University of Cambridge, stayed on for both an MA and a PhD and was appointed a fellow at Gonville and Caius College.

He soon established his eminence as a pure mathematician in the field of geometric topology, for example by demonstrating how to knot manifolds and turn spheres in high dimensions inside out, and he took up visiting positions at Princeton University, the University of Chicago and the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques near Paris.

In 1963, Sir Christopher got a chance to shape a whole new department when he became one of nine founding professors at Warwick. After persuading the university to buy a defunct country club for £8,000, he simply paid a signwriter to paint the words “Mathematics Institute” on the door.

He proved equally effective in recruiting staff. When five leading topologists turned down job offers, he wrote to them again and told each of them that the other four had said “yes”. They were later followed by equally distinguished groups of algebraists and then analysts.

Committed to both “the flexibility of options that are common in most American universities” and “the kind of tutorial care to be found in Oxford and Cambridge”, Sir Christopher soon developed the Mathematics Institute into a leading player. Meanwhile, his own research interests moved on to the application of approaches such as catastrophe theory to physics, biology and the social sciences.

David Rand, director of the Systems Biology Centre at Warwick, remembers Sir Christopher as “a remarkable polymath and deep-thinking leader and administrator…He was rare in always applying the same level of rigour and intellectual energy to questions of planning and management as to mathematics.

“For example, in the 1960s he produced a beautifully argued paper about how to design a Mathematics Institute building that was so insightful that it was used again to guide the architectural design of the new 2004 building that is now named after him.”

In 1978, Sir Christopher became the first mathematician to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for children. He was knighted in 1991 and served as principal of Hertford College, Oxford from 1988 to 1996. He died peacefully on 13 February and is survived by his wife, Lady Rosemary, and six children.

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