He left this world a better place (by David Bailey)

Talk by David H. Bailey at the funeral of Jonathan M. Borwein, 10 August 2016, in London, Ontario, Canada:

As the other speakers have emphasized, Jon Borwein, unlike most academics, was not content to simply focus on his own narrow research. Instead, Jon was always eager to share his results as broadly as possible, and to identify aspects of his research that would appeal to a much larger audience.

Along this line, in 1984, when Jon and Peter Borwein had just discovered some new formulas for computing pi and other basic math functions, they wrote an article for SIAM Review, a publication read mostly by applied mathematicians. One of those who read this article was an obscure mathematician-turned-computer scientist out in California, who was eager to implement some of these formulas. This led to a highly productive 31-year collaboration. That obscure mathematician was me.

What can one say about Jon’s professional accomplishments? I cannot possibly do justice to Jon’s work – I am unworthy to even attempt – so I won’t try. What is most amazing to me about Jon’s work was its breadth. In an era when academic researchers in general, and mathematicians in particular, focus ever more tightly on a single specialty, Jon did significant work in pure mathematics, applied mathematics, optimization theory, computer science, mathematical finance, and, of course, experimental mathematics, in which he has been arguably the world’s premier authority.

As mentioned above, Jon tried at every turn to do research that is accessible, and to highlight aspects of his and others’ work that a broad audience (including both researchers and the lay public) could appreciate. This was, in part, behind his long-running interest in Pi – this was a topic whose wonder could be shared with millions worldwide. But Jon’s interests extended far beyond mathematics.

Jon’s wide-ranging interests were nothing short of extraordinary: all fields of mathematics, physics, science, philosophy, history, even theology. As part of our work in writing blogs and articles, every day I survey a variety of science and general news, looking for interesting items. When I would send Jon an email with a link to a particularly interesting article, more often than not Jon would respond that he had already seen it. He often agreed that it was interesting, but then would tell me,. “so why don’t you write up an article about this for our blog?” He was always one step ahead of me.

Jon was much more than a scholar — he was also a devoted husband and father. Their family has endured some incredible hardships, but Jon has made some equally incredible sacrifices on their behalf. Jon has also been devoted to his own father and mother, often collaborating on research work with his father David, who of course is also a well-known mathematician.

The day that Jon died, I knew that I must say something, so I wrote a tribute to Jon, which I posted first to our blog and then to a new website I created, jonborwein.org, which would be devoted to remembrances of Jon and a repository of his work. I initially wondered whether anyone would contribute, but in the few days since I created the site many friends and colleagues have sent remembrances.

One described Jon as “a force of nature, uncontainable and omnipresent. His passion for knowledge was insatiable and drove him to a breadth of research that is extremely rare in modern times.” Another noted his “passion for explaining mathematics.” Another said he was a “great mentor.” Another colleague said, “Jon had a brilliant mind that went far beyond mathematics. His boundless energy, voracious literacy and generous spirit inspired many.” Another simply said “He was a good man.” To another, he was “our friend.”

Perhaps one that most touching was this: “Jon left this world a better place.” What better eulogy or epitaph could someone possibly have than this?

What can I say at Jon’s passing? I have collaborated with Jon for over 31 years, with over 80 papers and five books with Jon as a co-author. He is like a family member to me – I often think of myself as one of his family. My professional work will forever be connected with him. I am humbled beyond measure and grieve deeply at his passing.

Jon’s passing is an incalculable loss, not just to the field of mathematics, but to all those who love and treasure knowledge and to who love and treasure people. Thank you.

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