A mathematical family man (by Michael Rose)

[This is a talk by Michael Rose at a memorial service for Jonathan Borwein in Newcastle, Australia on 21 September 2016.]

It was my very great privilege to be one of Jon’s students for 5 years, one of over 70 postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars who Jon took under his wing, and after speaking with a few others it’s clear that you can take what I’m about to say and more or less multiply it by 70, there’s a lot of shared experience. You have heard much about Jon the extraordinary mathematician, and now I would like to tell you about Jon the extraordinary mentor.

We all have many stories we can tell to illustrate Jon’s character, but here’s the one that came straight to mind for me.

My first real meeting with Jon was in 2010. I was a bit directionless. I wanted to research mathematics, but the maths I was really keen on – fractals – wasn’t being done at Newcastle and I thought well, a world-renowned mathematician has just arrived here of all places, so… I’ll ask his advice. Worth a shot. I wasn’t really expecting he’d meet with me – he was obviously extremely busy and important and I was a mediocre student nobody, so, fair enough. But not only did warmly welcome me into his office, but after I was done talking his reaction was to ask me, simply, what would you really like to do? And I noticed there was this book on his desk, called SuperFractals, which I also owned, and I pointed to it and said, well, ideally, that. Well fractals was not one of Jon’s many major fields of research, but it was on his radar and, gifted and curious and generous as he was, his response was, that looks like fun, let’s do that together. And we did. He got me enrolled in a Masters, which was all my grades would afford, and then later upgraded to a PhD on the strength of the mathematics that we did together, along with David and Richard Crandall.

Of course it wasn’t easy being a student or colleague of Jon, as many will attest – you had to run quite fast to try and keep up, which was no bad thing. Here I’ll quote from Matt Tam, another, better, student of Jon’s had the following to say on this matter (see if this sounds familiar):

‘As a student of Jon, one always had to be “on their toes”. Time after time he would, often quite spontaneously, make a seemly innocent or mysterious remark such as “You should try X”, “ You should think about X” or “See what you can do with X”. It would be easy to dismiss these remarks as mere passing thought, but, more often than not, there was some deeper meaning that would be only realised much later. I think that anyone who has worked with Jon can attest to having experienced such a “Ahhh that’s what he meant!” moment themselves. In fact, my first paper with Jon… was the result of one of these comments… Some two weeks later, we had worked out most of the details.’

Obviously he was not only a brilliant mind but a fantastic teacher of the next generation of mathematicians – a quick glance at those 70 scholars will show that. Matt’s comment was that “he didn’t just teach his students how to do research but rather how to be researchers.” And what really made him a teacher par excellence was the fact he cared deeply for his students.

Jon went well above and beyond for us students in many ways. First and foremost, though he was always extremely busy he took the time to really know his students, the better to help them potential. He had a knack for zeroing right in on our strengths and especially our weaknesses. In my case, it was Jon’s idea to check out a science communication pathway after my PhD – and when did he first have that insight? Well, literally days after that first meeting he’d invited me in to one of talks to a local primary school, and that was quickly followed by him nudging me into various outreach events, school visits, radio talks, you name it. Not only was Jon a passionate mathematician, but he was also a passionate advocate of mathematics and he shared the joy of maths as far and wide as he could, from primary students to fellow professors, always with a wonderful sense of humour. He was ever and always an outstanding role model.

But after all that, the thing that left the biggest impression on me, was Jon’s warm-hearted willingness to play a supporting role even beyond mathematical concerns. When I was struggling with some personal crises, Jon always had a sympathetic ear and some fantastic advice to give. Jon’s door was always open when he was in Newcastle, his inbox was always open when he was away, and let alone his office, but Jon and Judy’s house was open to me. I fondly remember attending numerous conferences on Jon’s invitation, some overseas, where Jon introduced to many outstanding mathematicians, drinking coffee and dining with Jon and Judy, sightseeing after conferences, you name it.

Jon was very much a mathematical family man, pouring much care and attention into the relationships between himself and his students, and his students with each other. With the utmost sincerity and conviction I can say to you that truly, we who were fortunate enough to study with Jon could not possibly have had a greater supervisor in any sense I know. Not only was he a great mentor, but a great friend who will be dearly missed and fondly remembered.

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