Professor Sir Michael Atiyah (22 April 1929 -January 11, 2019)

The LMS has learnt with great sadness of death of Professor Sir Michael Atiyah, OM, FRS on January 11th, 2019. Michael Atiyah was a brilliant mathematician and a towering figure who dominated the British and international mathematical landscape for over half a century.

Atiyahs’s work spanned many fields. Together with Friedrich Hirzebruch, he laid the foundations for topological K-theory. The Atiyah–Singer index theorem, proved with Isidore Singer in 1963, not only vastly generalised classical results from the 19th century, but also provided an entirely new bridge between analysis and topology. Regarded as one of the great landmarks of 20th century mathematics it has profoundly influenced many of the most important later developments in topology, differential geometry and quantum field theory. His more recent work was inspired by theoretical physics, in particular instantons and monopoles.

In 1966 he was awarded a Fields medal for his work in developing K-theory, a generalized Lefschetz fixed-point theorem and the Atiyah–Singer theorem. In 2004 he was awarded the Abel Prize jointly with Singer ‘for their discovery and proof of the index theorem, bringing together topology, geometry and analysis, and their outstanding role in building new bridges between mathematics and theoretical physics’.

Besides the brilliance of his mathematics, Atiyah was a visionary leader.  He was President of the LMS (1974–76) and his former students include no less than three LMS Presidents as well as Fields medallist Simon Donaldson. He was involved in the creation of the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge, becoming its first Director in 1990. He was also closely involved in the foundation of the European Mathematical Society, having chaired the meetings which led up to its inception also in 1990.

Born in London of Lebanese and Scottish descent, Atiyah’s early education was in Sudan and Egypt. He came back to England immediately after the war, finishing his final school years at Manchester Grammar School. He did his undergraduate and doctoral work in Cambridge, studying under William Hodge, and in 1954 became a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1961 he moved to Oxford where in 1963 he became the Savilian Professor of Geometry, having been elected to the Royal Society in 1962 at the early age of 32. In 1969 he left Oxford for the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, returning to Oxford three years later to take up a Royal Society Research Professorship. In 1990 he returned to Cambridge to take up the Directorship of the Newton Institute, becoming at the same time Master of Trinity College and President of the Royal Society (1990–95).

Following his retirement, he moved to Edinburgh where he was an honorary professor at the University of Edinburgh and President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (2005–2008). 

Atiyah received awards and honours far too numerous to list here. He had honorary degrees and memberships of Academies of Science from around the world. His medals include the LMS’s highest award the De Morgan Medal (1980) as well as the Berwick Prize (1961), the Royal Society’s Royal Medal (1968) and its highest award, the Copley Medal (1988). He was knighted in 1983 and became a member of the Order of Merit in 1992. He was a Grand Officer of the French Legion of honour. Some of his medals and certificates are on display in the Newton Institute.

Sir Michael's other contributions to the LMS include as Vice-President (1973–74), the Forder Lectureship to New Zealand (1989) and as an Editor of the Journal of Topology (2007–2016/17).

LMS President Professor Series, said: ‘Sir Michael has been the dominating figure in British mathematics during my entire career. Even to those far from his subject, he was an inspirational lecturer who had the gift of elucidating complicated ideas and taking his listeners with him on a journey which created the illusion that one understood far more than one really did. His life and work must have touched all those who came into contact with him and British mathematics would be very different now without him. Despite increasing frailty in the past few years, he retained his enormous energy and enthusiasms, travelling to Rio in August 2018 to deliver the Abel lecture at the ICM. Only very recently, he wrote to the LMS expressing his strong support for an Academy of Mathematical Sciences, believing it essential to have such a body to argue the case for the broad mathematical community. Michael would have been the person to make it happen. He will be sorely missed’.

More information about Atiyah’s life and works can be found in Celbratio edited by Nigel Hitchin, Andrew Ranicki and Rob Kirby.