Sir Michael Atiyah’s genius is summed up in his legacy

The world has lost one of its brightest minds and most celebrated mathematicians in Sir Michael Atiyah, former president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, who has died aged 89.

Tuesday, 22nd January 2019, 5:00 am
Sir Michael Atiyah has died at the age of 89
Sir Michael Atiyah has died at the age of 89

Those elected to the office of president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) are by any standards, outstanding and distinguished individuals.

But even by these elevated standards, Sir Michael Atiyah was truly exceptional.

A master mathematician, the professor was a recipient of two of the highest honours in mathematics during his life: the Fields Medal and the Abel Prize.

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Following a glittering career in Oxford, Princeton and Cambridge, and after receiving many international honours, he decided to retire to Scotland in 1997. Being very proud of his Scottish descent on his mother’s side and having a Scottish wife (Lily Brown), he was very much at home here.

Not for him, however, a quiet retirement, resting on his laurels.

He still had plenty of energy and became an active Fellow of the RSE. It was therefore with universal acclaim from the RSE Fellowship that Sir Michael was elected president in October 2005.

One of his key objectives was to increase awareness of the genius of the Edinburgh-born mathematical physicist and 19th century Fellow of the RSE, James Clerk Maxwell. This took various forms.

The first was to rename the large committee room on the ground floor of the RSE’s George Street building as the James Clerk Maxwell room. It was there under the portrait of Maxwell that Sir Michael signed an agreement with the president of the IEEE (Institution of Electronic and Electrical Engineers) to create a joint Maxwell Prize. This prize, funded by Wolfson Microelectronics plc has since been awarded to several very eminent scientists and engineers, with the medals being presented by Prince Philip on HRH’s regular visits to the RSE.

The most obvious evidence of Sir Michael’s determined efforts at improving public recognition of James Clerk Maxwell was the creation and erection of the fine statue of Maxwell by Alexander Stoddart in George Street.

The process of securing planning permission from the City of Edinburgh Council to erect the statue, securing the site in George Street, designing and commissioning the statue, raising the money to pay for it, and then having it installed, was a complex and labyrinthine project.

The statue was unveiled in November 2008, shortly after Sir Michael had completed his three-year term as president and handed over to Lord Wilson of Tillyorn KT. The unveiling ceremony was the highlight of an international commemorative conference about Maxwell and his legacy, and the proceedings were published by the RSE. The Maxwell statue is owned by the RSE which maintains it.

Professor Dame Anne Glover, president of the RSE, paid tribute to the late professor, saying: “It was with great sadness that we have learned of Sir Michael’s death.

“He was not only one of our greatest mathematicians, whose talents were justly rewarded with many honours and awards, but a dedicated and inspirational president of the RSE.

“Hugely respected by all, his tireless campaigning and success in having a statue erected in the centre of Edinburgh to honour physicist James Clerk Maxwell, is a fitting legacy to his presidency”.

The RSE commissioned a portrait by Juliet Wood of Sir Michael. This was unveiled by his life-long friend and colleague, Lord Mackay of Clashfern KT and it hangs in the RSE’s Kelvin Room.

When Sir Michael celebrated his 80th birthday in April 2009, the RSE played an important part, and hosted a unique gathering of the many outstanding people who came to pay tribute to his genius and friendship.

In all these various ways, Sir Michael greatly raised local as well as international awareness of the RSE and that legacy continues.

Sir Michael, who died on 11 January, is survived by his sons, David and Robin Atiyah.