Talk by Naomi Borwein at Jonathan Borwein’s funeral, 10 August 2016.
Jonathan was a complicated figure, of profound and intense contradiction, and a formidable and DEVOTED father. He cared deeply, thought deeply, and felt deeply about most things. A lot of people will be discussing the impact and scope of Jon’s academic output or his sheer brilliance — his genius. But, year after year his work evolved as I watched from the sidelines. So, I am going to share a snapshot of Jon as a fixture of my daily life, through the lens of the everyday.
A ubiquitous aspect of Jon, as mathematician and father, was his intense volition: an unstoppable endogenous drive that compelled him to constantly create. He had a strong sense of moral obligation to the mathematical community, and society at large. He was proud of his Jewish heritage, but also keenly aware of the need to actively expose his identity in the face of surging anti-Semitism in the institution, worldwide. Even his financial mathematics came partly from a desire to expose major flaws in Wall Street and the economic apparatus that negatively impact standards of living.
But, Jon had a whimsical side. He loved the political activism as much as the playfulness of being an ordained minister of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; the certificate is on his living room wall. He was president of the fictional organisation the Boys Defence League, fighting for equal rights and against the tyranny of mothers. Jon and his grandson, JJ, were the founding members. And then there was Larryism, a spoof response to the absurdity of cult-like religions such as scientology, and right-wing fundamentalism. The Doctrines of Larry are available online. Despite this playful side of Jon, his whimsy often had practical purpose.
In 2010 Jon changed his Internet and telephone provider to Telstra, the leading national telecommunications provider in Australia. Telstra started by providing service to J Brow-ein, and things went down hill from there. So Jon chronicled his month-long quest to fix his Internet and telephone connection in a highly amusing, but frustratingly bureaucratic, sixty page document. It ended up being obligatory reading for all the vice presidents at Telstra, and was sent as part of a package to the Australian Government’s royal commission on the dysfunction of Big Telcos in the country. This was under the umbrella of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which is an Australian Government statutory authority. Jon was personally thanked in the final report that was lodged in parliament. All of this was catalysed by his impulse to create, and his desire to do the right thing. To make positive change. This is the same impulse that drove his popular writing on science, politics, and math.
My childhood is punctuated by recollections of Jon — as Dad. From my earliest memories on Allan Street, to our time in Pittsburg, Waterloo, or Vancouver, and sabbaticals and trips to Europe, Australia, the UK, and the Middle East. He taught me how to do cryptic crossword puzzles. And, we often had family games of Trivial Pursuit and swam laps. We would bike ride around Point Pleasant Park and The Commons in Halifax, and fly kaleidoscopic kites in the Nova Scotian gales that swept in from the Atlantic Ocean. He and I played a lot of scrabble together too, that is until I finally started beating him! My childhood with Jon was intellectually rich: amazing geological and archaeological sites, hiking on the Bay of Fundy at Cape Split, the Swiss Alps, the Black Forest, and the Blue Mountains, a panoply of museums, art galleries, musical venues, and university campuses around the world. He impressed upon me the importance of knowledge, and it is in no small part due to him that, I am in the final stages of completing my PhD candidature.
I will always remember the Sundays he spent alone with me when I was a child. We were living in Halifax at the time. Jon would take me to The Spartan, a local diner on the corner of Oxford and Quinpool Rd with old-fashioned nineteen fifties booths and a silver soda fountain bar. He would buy us hot chocolate, and occasionally, for a treat, a piece of banana crème pie — it was one of his favourites. Those Sundays were an excuse for Jon to teach me math. And after we had lingered in the diner for far too long, he would take my hand — his hands looked gigantic to me — and we would walk home together up Kline Street.
His last day alive was my birthday — August 1st. It was an almost perfect day. Everyone was in good spirits. After dinner I thanked him for his gift. We exchanged smiles, his face glowing with tremendous warmth. That he loved me, was palpable. And this last moment will be the enduring image of my father.
That Jon’s death leaves a gapping hole in my mother’s life is a given, but it also leaves one in mine.
In closing, let me share this one short anecdote.
Jon had a cat named FENWAY. The physicist Richard Crandall named him after Fenway Park, because the cat came home on the day Ted Williams died, and Crandall happened to be visiting us in Vancouver at the time. A friend is taking care of Fenway right now, and he wrote me and said, “I think your cat really likes listening to NPR.” It only dawned on me then that for a decade Jon and Fenway had been listening to NPR together at night in the den.
Needless to say, Jon has left an imprint on many people, and at least one cat.