Obituary: Sir Michael Atiyah

Sir Michael Atiyah, who was widely regarded as Britain’s greatest mathematician, has died aged 89. Sir Michael was Chancellor of the University of Leicester between 1995 and 2005.

In his bid farewell as Chancellor, Sir Michael paid tribute to his time at the University. Sir Michael said: “I have enjoyed my association with Leicester, a multi-cultural, multi-national university with wide ranging students from all parts of the world and all ages. This is a University fit for the future."

Vice-Chancellor at the time, Professor Robert Burgess, paid tribute to Sir Michael. He said: "Sir Michael has been a great ambassador for the University of Leicester and it has been a source of great pride and honour for Leicester to have such a distinguished academic as its Chancellor.

"We have already named a building on campus after Sir Michael as a reminder of his contribution to the University. His legacy to Leicester is the way he has inspired others to achieve excellence in their academic endeavours and in their careers. By raising aspirations, he has personified what universities aim to achieve."

Sir Mi­chael was born in Lon­don on 22 April 1929 to a Scottish mother and Lebanese father. As a child, he lived in Khar­toum, Sudan, and at­tended the Dio­ces­an School, but also made regular trips to Eng­land dur­ing the spring and sum­mer to avoid the heat. During the Second World War, following his elementary schooling in Khartoum, Michael attended Victoria College in Cairo, Egypt.

At the age of 16, he decided that mathematics was a subject he would like to take further. His parents’ thoughts naturally turned to Cambridge University and, in preparation, Sir Michael was sent to Manchester Grammar School in 1945. He subsequently won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge University, in 1947.

He finally started at Cambridge University in 1949 at the age of 20, after spending two years doing his National Service in the military. In the first end-of-year examinations, Sir Michael came top of the whole university.

Sir Michael wrote his first original paper, concerning a branch of geometry, as a second-year undergraduate and went on to study for a PhD. After completing his doctorate, he became a fellow of Trinity College in 1954. In 1955, he spent a year as Commonwealth Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Sir Michael returned to Cambridge as a college lecturer in 1957 and became fellow of Pembroke College in 1958. In 1961, he was a reader at Oxford University and went on to become a fellow of St Catherine’s College. Aged just 32, Sir Michael was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1962.

From 1963 until 1969, Sir Michael was Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford. From 1969, he became Professor of Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Three years later, he returned to England, becoming a Royal Society research professor at Oxford.

Sir Michael’s initial area of research focused largely on theoretical mathematics, in particular geometry. In the 1970s, however, his focused shifted more towards physics, where he applied his ideas of mathematics and geometry to string theory.

He made his first major contribution with German mathematician, Friedrich Hirzebruch, developing a new and powerful analytical technique called K-theory. He also worked with American mathematician, Isadore Manuel Singer, to establish an analytical tool called Index Theorem. According to Sir Michael, this was the best work he ever did.

Sir Michael’s work in physics and his associated analytical techniques became valuable tools for problem solving in mathematics, theoretical physics and particle physics.

In addition to research and teaching, Sir Michael was also active in science management and the management of research institutions. He was President of the Royal Society between 1990 and 1995, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge from 1990 to 1997, and initiated the establishment of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, which he headed from 1990 to 1996.

Sir Michael received numerous honours during his career. He was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1968, was Knighted in 1983, received the Copley Medal in 1988, became a member of the Order of Merit in 1992, received the Fields Medal in 1996 and the Abel Prize in 2004, and in 2011 was made a Grand Officier of the Légion d’honneur.