Mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah, 1929-2019

​Jennifer Muller, Office of Communications,​​​​​​​​

AUB today mourns the loss of renowned mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah (Hon. DHL ’04), a longtime supporter of the university and chair of the International Advisory Committee of AUB’s Center for Advanced Mathematical Sciences (CAMS). There is an endowed chair in mathematical sciences named in his honor at AUB​.

The president of the Royal Society of London, Venki Ramakrishnan, issued the following statement upon his passing:

“Sir Michael Atiyah was a great mathematician who was known for his contributions in the areas of geometry and topology. For his work, he received many awards, notably the Fields Medal, Abel Prize, and the Royal Society’s highest accolade, the Copley Medal. 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.”

Atiyah was born to a Lebanese father and a Scottish mother. His father Edward was best known for his 1946 autobiography An Arab Tells His Story, and his 1955 book The Arabs. His grandfather, Selim Atiyah, studied medicine at AUB in the 1890s. Although Michael Atiyah was born in London, he grew up in Khartoum before moving to England in 1945. He won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge two years later, but rather than go straight to university, he decided to do his two-years military service, which was compulsory at the time.

He was granted special permission to cut short the final year of his military service and spend it at Cambridge. He matriculated at Trinity College in the autumn of 1949. With his exceptional talent and the studying he had done before starting his course, he came out ranked first. While still an undergraduate, he wrote his first paper A note on the tangents of a twisted cubic (1952).

After graduating with his BA in 1952, Atiyah continued to undertake research at Trinity College, Cambridge obtaining his doctorate in 1955 with his thesis Some Applications of Topological Methods in Algebraic Geometry. After his doctorate, Atiyah went on to teach at Cambridge and Oxford. In 1962, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society. From 1969 to 1972 he was professor of mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, and from 1977 to 1990 research professor and fellow of St. Catherine's, Oxford University. At Cambridge he became the first director of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematics and Sciences from 1990 to 1996. He was knighted in 1983 and made a member of the Order of Merit in 1992.

Sir Michael produced a very large corpus of academic work in mathematics, but it is the two books early in his career, K Theory and Commutative Algebra, for which he is best known.

Sir Michael was the commencement speaker at AUB in 2001 and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2004. In presenting him the doctorate of humane letters, president John Waterbury recounted the following story: “The year 1995 marked the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Sir Michael Atiyah was making his farewell address to the Royal Society. He dropped a bomb of his own. Noting that the UK's nuclear weapons program had received bipartisan support, he went on to say, ‘this is fortunate, because it means that I, as a scientist, can state my views without becoming embroiled in partisan politics. So, let me venture a prediction. I believe history will show that the insistence on a UK nuclear capability was fundamentally misguided, a total waste of resources, and a significant factor in our relative decline over the past 50 years.’”

Waterbury went on to say that through his active involvement in promoting world peace, Atiyah called upon all scientists to pay explicit attention to the consequences of what they do.

Sir Michael spoke about AUB on the occasion of his honorary doctorate, saying that the university “for more than a century has been a beacon of enlightenment in this troubled part of the world, upholding the importance of education and learning throughout many difficult times.”

In 2008, the Michael Atiyah Chair in Mathematical Sciences​ was established at AUB with a $2 million pledge by the Simons Foundation. In announcing the gift, the Simons said of Atiyah: “Sir Michael is a good friend and someone we have admired for many years. He has played an important and critical role in the University's efforts to reestablish itself as a research University. The Michael Atiyah Chair will enable the University to attract top researchers and professors who will provide unparalleled educational opportunities for students at AUB."​