The gentle giant … of Mathematics

Every mathematician knows that John Willard Milnor is the stuff of legend. But on March 30, 2003, I realized that the legend of John Milnor had spilled out, already a long time ago,  from our rarefied world community of research mathematicians.   It was during the inaugural ceremony for the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) in Banff, Alberta.

I announced to the people on my table that John Milnor will be a bit late joining us. The Nobel prize winner sitting on my right couldn’t control himself. You mean “John Milnor” is here? The Nobelist couldn’t hide his awe. He had known of Milnor as a graduate student at Princeton many decades ago. Isabelle Blain, a Chemist by training, and who was sitting on my left (trying frantically to protect her wine glass from my reach) must have been impressed by the “respect” mathematicians were getting from Nobel Laureates. But then, John Milnor is no ordinary mathematician.

Milnor was already the stuff of legend among the Princeton students.  As an undergraduate, he was named a Putnam Fellow in 1949. At the age of 19, he had proved what is now known as the Fary–Milnor theorem: Three-dimensional smooth curves with total curvature less than 4π must be unknotted.

But that was just a beginning of the illustrious career of John Milnor. The Fields medal in 1962 was followed by the National Medal of Science in 1967, the Leroy P Steele Prize in 1982), and the Wolf Prize in Mathematics in 1989.

On February 21st, 2011, BIRS celebrated the 80th birthday of John Milnor. The Station normally hosts a maximal number of 42 scientists at a time. The Milnor conference had to accommodate many more. Over 130 research mathematicians (ranging from graduate students to acknowledged experts) showed up, and the BIRS overflow was accommodated in other buildings at the Banff Center. (We don’t normally do that at BIRS, but for John Milnor …)

Unfortunately, John had a medical emergency upon his arrival to Calgary and had to miss the first couple of days of the conference. But he is now well and we wish him our very best.

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