[Talk by Brailey Sims at the Jon Borwein Memorial Service, 21 September 2016, Newcastle, Australia.]
This is a sad yet vital occasion. It serves to remind us of Jon the person and Jon the achiever and to look forward to the massive legacy he has left for us. But, it also helps drive home the stark and dreadful reality that we are now living in a post Jon world. As Jon steamed full speed-ahead we have for many years gyred and gymbled — two of Jon’s favourite words — in the bow waves he generated, now the juggernaut has passed us by and only an ever expanding wake is left for us to explore.
As word of his passing spread I received emails from friends and colleagues all around the world. Most expressed that like myself they felt not only profound shock and sorrow but disbelief – Jon was so much larger than life, how could he be gone!?. Here are snippets from just a handful of them:
- “I read the email … this morning, and quite literally could not believe what it said.” “It is very hard to accept”
- “I am shocked and shaken to the core.”
- “I cannot believe this news.”
- “I am absolutely gutted. I will have a few/many whiskeys tonight and think back upon many happy memories. What else can one do?” Indeed what else could one do! it’s undoubtedly what many of us did.
I was not the first among you to have met Jon, but luckily among the early ones to do so.
In 1982 I was spending a Sabbatical in Kingston Ontario and first met Jon while on a short visit to Dalhousie University where he was a relatively new appointee. He invited me to return for a longer stay toward the end of the Sabbatical. Rather than have me stay in a hotel or college he ‘put me up’ in their apartment, after which it was never just Jon, but always Jon and Judi – I have yet to meet a closer more devoted couple. There, besides writing what became a well known paper (mainly at night until the wee hours of the morning over a bottle of whiskey, Glenfidich — of course, bought for us that day by Judi) I also had the pleasure of two very young Borwein girls climbing and tumbling over me and making sure we were awake for breakfast no matter how late we had worked. It was a wonderful, though thoroughly exhausting two weeks. After which I knew I had met an amazing mathematician and addictively engaging person.
Over the ensuing years we maintained as close a contact as the tyranny of distance would allow, with Jon, Judi and now three daughters making numerous trips to Australia, and Newecastle in particular (where he worked closely with John Giles among others).
In 2006 Newcastle lost its Professor of Mathematics together with three other mathematicians to Wollongong. Shortly after, I wrote to Jon asking if he could recommend anyone from North America we might approach to fill the vacant professorship. You can imagine my delight when I received a, typically Jon, one line email back saying “well, what about me” — the rest is now history thanks largely to the efforts of Barney Glover — then DVC-Research. Since joining the Faculty at Newcastle, Jon’s contribution to mathematics both here and to the Australian mathematics community has been immense.
His engagement with the mathematical community was legendary. Passionate about all he did, deeply committed to truth and fairness, immensely creative, prodigious in output — achieving in a couple of days what would take most of us weeks, dedicated to the dissemination of mathematics, unassuming and generous in sharing his ideas. For Jon collaboration came naturally and he was one of the most collegiate colleagues I have known.
How can I describe Jon in the short time available:
Lightning fast in his thinking with a seemingly endless stream of ideas, Jon carried in his head one of the largest data sets and most phenomenal recall mechanism I have known. It almost seems ironic therefore that he was one of the strongest advocates for the use of online searches and tools, and of the computer as a mathematician’s laboratory for experimentation, though I think for Jon ‘playground’ might have been a more apt description.
As his friend and colleague, Jean-Bernard Lasserre, has said, “[Jon was] the most open minded and smart scientist I have ever met in my career.” [quote from an email]
Despite his brilliance, though I prefer to believe, because of it, Jon was a very human human. He placed great value on, and was fiercely loyal to, family and friends. He relished in good company. As a matter of course he and Judi entertained friends and colleagues in their home and freely included them in their almost weekly excursions into the countryside; occasions when Jon relaxed – though never without a laptop or later an iPad to hand. He loved life and lived it to the full, never wasting a moment.
Over the last eight years, almost weekly visits with Jon and Judi, supplied Gail’s and my weekly injection of world politics, cricket and tennis news as well as the delight of Judi’s cooking followed by a relaxing but eclectic selection of Jon’s chosen music, not to mention some great Hunter Valley wines, and still the odd glass of whiskey.
I have never experienced anyone so fully abreast of current world and scientific news – where did he find the time!
An avid communicator, beside his many talks and lectures, Jon is well know for his steady stream of blogs and articles in the popular press, of which I’m sure his frequent co-author, David Bailey, will speak more fully.
Jon was never a bystander. He so often saw the potential in things; in a mathematical idea, in a colleague, in an action, in a political cause, or in a research centre. And, he seemed to lend boundless energy and enthusiasm to ensure it came to fruition. When making a case, Jon very naturally made frequent reference to his own experiences and involvements (successful or otherwise). This was seen by some who didn’t know him as boastful, but in all the time I knew him he only spoke of these to reinforce a point, never for self aggrandisement. Indeed the proportion of his many achievements that he spoke of was much less than is the case for most people. He simply had such a wealth of things to give.
To quote from an email sent to me by Ali Eshragh; “Einstein said “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value,” and there is no doubt that Jon was among the very few ’men of value’ in the world.”
In mathematics and so often in life, especially since his move to Newcastle, Jon was the brother I never had – my BIG, seemingly older and much much wiser brother! He is sorely missed and leaves an emptiness I, along with many others, will carry with us always.
Brailey Sims, 21 September 2016