My memory of Jon Borwein

Yesterday, Qiji emailed me with the sad and shocking news. After talking to Qiji for a few minutes, I just sat by my desk, stared at the computer monitors, without being able to do anything remotely meaningful for the entire afternoon.

Similar to many others who posted here, Jon played a significant role in my life. What I want to share is some of my memory of Jon (in his 30s).

Jon liked to swim. He often said that swimming gave him the clearest mind. He always did mathematics while he was swimming. Dalhousie has an Olympic sized pool (though most of the time only a half of the pool was open, at least it was so when I was there). Jon went to the pool almost every day. He was not a swimmer like Michael Phelps, but he did his laps steadily and consistently with great endurance for about an hour. When he was done with his swim session, Jon would write down how many laps and how much time he did for this session on a notebook he carried in his gym bag. After the swim, more often than not, he would go straight to “gradhouse” mentioned by Henry in his post. Jon would take some sheets of yellow line paper out of his bag and write mathematics furiously and rapidly on them over a beer. (Jon was left-handed. He wrote very fast and very neat.) A few of our joint publications were the fruition of the ideas Jon conceived during his swimming sessions and of our chats at “gradhouse” afterwards.

Jon’s mind, unlike the minds of common souls like me, was capable of genuine multi-task functioning. When television sets with the functionality of showing programs from different TV stations simultaneously just came out, Jon immediately bought such a TV set and used the multi-window feature extensively. During many conference and seminar talks I participated, I witnessed that while speakers were talking, Jon would be doing his own calculations that were completely unrelated to the topics of the talks. However, more often than not, Jon would stop the speakers in the middle of their talks and started to make observations about what speakers just talked about or started to ask questions on the topics. More often than not, the speakers were unaware of these observations themselves or the speakers were unable to answer Jon’s questions. I know a number of joint papers of Jon and these speakers were the results of the observations and inquires Jon made during the talks.

Jon had phenomenal memory. I was in a few of his graduate courses and often saw him give hours of lectures, doing derivations or proofs of important theorems, formulas with pretty heavy technical machineries, without even a glance at his notes. Some undergrads at Dalhousie University actually complained about Jon giving lectures on calculus without using lecture notes. After that, Jon always carried a big binder full of pages to his calculus classes. However, the binder contained nothing but his own research notes.

Doing mathematics was the greatest enjoyment for Jon. He would not go anywhere without his notebook or clipboard with pages of blank paper he could write on. Sometime in early 1990s, Jon came back to Halifax from Waterloo for a conference. One day while he was in Halifax, Jon asked me to drive him to Peggy’s cove. During our driving trip, Jon became a bit sentimental, saying something like “I am not sure how many more times I would see Peggy’s cove in the future”. (Now come to think about it, he must have decided to accept a position in SFU at that time.) However, once we were in Peggy’s cove, Jon took out his notebook and started to write on it furiously and rapidly as usual.
Jon’s departure
from this world is too early, too sudden and leaves too much sadness to his family, to his friends, to his colleagues and his students. Jon will always live in my heart. [Deming Zhuang, financial risk manager, New York City]

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