Jon made us big

I first met Jon Borwein at Goldberg’s restaurant on Darby Street in Newcastle. I had arrived in Australia for the first time in the midst of one of its characteristic week-long winter storms. Having not yet slept, I was worried I would be too tired to carry on a lively and intelligent conversation with him. I confided this to my co-advisor who reassured me, “Don’t worry; he’ll take care of that for you.”

I always dislike referring to anyone as a “genius” because I worry that doing so will reinforce for my students the mistaken belief that only certain, special individuals can enjoy math or contribute to the field in a meaningful way. Still, it is hard to talk about Jon without using the word. In its origin, the word “genius” referred not to an innate characteristic but to a spirit which visited and gave inspiration; Jon was someone well familiar with this spirit. It was a frequent visitor to him, and he had learned, through experience, to set the table and wait for it to arrive.

This was one of the most valuable lessons I learned from him: if you wait to start writing until you have something to say, that special something may not ever visit. The inspiration comes after the expenditure of the time to prepare a room for it. One such occasion happened to be the evening of my second dinner at Goldberg’s with Jon and Judy. An idea visited Jon rather suddenly, as they tended to, and he shared it with me excitedly. As he spoke, Judy smiled at him, put her hand on his, and told me, “I just love hearing him talk about math!” Jon then smiled a broad, giddy smile I only ever saw in his face when he looked at Judy. This was the first of many times I would see this particular smile; it was his biggest.

Jon loved to smile, and his smile was big. For my last project with him, in Canada, we produced some images showing the behavior of a projection algorithm with plane curves. They revealed a behavior far more complicated than we had expected to see; however, far more compelling to me was that the images were beautiful to look at. To see Jon have the same response of excitement in response to their beauty was more than validating. When Jon became really excited about something you discovered, you felt big. You felt big because Jon was big, but you also felt big because Jon, in his uninhibited, joyful response, gave you permission to feel that way. There was never a pun I made which was too silly for Jon to laugh at, and so I stopped asking how bad my puns were and simply enjoyed making them.

The night he left this world was stormy, like the night I first met him. I had just returned to Newcastle and was expecting him to return a few days after me. Wind ripped around the house, and the doors and windows loudly rattled in their frames and panes. It was as though Jon was excitedly rushing through one last time, trying to tell us about all the beautiful new truths he has found and pictures he has seen. I still walk past Goldberg’s from time to time, and I always look inside, hoping to see Jon just one more time. When I see he is not there, I always feel sad, but I am comforted by two thoughts, first the one and then the other.

The first is that – because of his many visits with genius and the many lives he touched along the way – as long as I continue to study mathematics I will never really be finished meeting Jon Borwein, at least not until I join him in whatever topological space he now works.

The second is that he would really have enjoyed that “topological space” pun. He would have laughed, and I would have felt really big one more time.

Thank you for giving us the chance to become big, Jon. [Scott Lindstrom, University of Newcastle, Australia]

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