Remembering Sir Michael Atiyah (1929-2019)

The Pugwash community is saddened by the loss of Sir Michael Atiyah, who died on 11 January 2019. He had served as the Pugwash President from 1997-2002.

Pugwash Secretary-General Paolo Cotta-Ramusino made the following tribute:
He was one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. He received the Field Medal in 1996 and was awarded the Abel Prize in 2004. He worked in Algebraic and Differential Geometry and in Mathematical Physics (Gauge theories). I met Atiyah first in 1984 and I can say that talking with him was an impressive experience. Pugwash was highly honoured to have him as President. Given also his Lebanese origin, he had a special sensitivity in dealing with Middle Eastern problems. He will be remembered with fondness and admiration by all the Pugwash community for years to come.”

Michael Atiyah and Pugwash: some personal recollections, by Francesco Calogero (former Pugwash Secretary-General)

Michael Atiyah (hereafter MA) was an eminent mathematician, and during his lifetime he deserved and obtained essentially all the most significant recognitions by the world mathematical and scientific community. This brief report focuses mainly on his involvement with Pugwash, as seen through my own eyes.

In 1995, in his valedictory speech at the end of his tenure as President of the Royal Society, MA surprised his audience by focusing on the danger posed by nuclear weaponry. This fact convinced Joseph Rotblat—then serving as President of Pugwash—that he would be his ideal successor in that role. He suggested this idea to me—then serving (since 1989) as Secretary General of Pugwash—and we then went (together with Sebastian Pease, then serving as Chair of the British Pugwash Group) to investigate with MA whether he would be willing to serve in such a position (in principle, for the coming Quinquennium 1997-2002). MA kindly agreed to receive us in his then residence as Master of Trinity College in Cambridge—an impressive event for me, as this was the house where Isaac Newton had lived, and there was still some furniture from that time, including a pendulum clock! MA asked us to bring him up to date on the Pugwash activities and organizational structure—including of course an explanation (in the context of the Pugwash leadership: President, Secretary-General, Chair of the Pugwash Council, Chair of the Pugwash Executive Committee) of the role of the President. We told him that having a first-rate scientist as President is important in terms of the image of Pugwash and for its official functions, but it does not imply any day-to-day organizational responsibility, this being the role of the Secretary General (de facto the CEO of the organization). At the end of our conversation MA told us that he was favorably inclined to accept to serve as President but liked to have a little more time to think about this matter. He was also interested to know who my successor as next Secretary General of Pugwash would be, as we had told him that we were then also looking for a new Secretary General: I indeed wished to be replaced in order to return full-time to my scientific activity. So the next task for me and Rotblat was to find an appropriate candidate for my replacement as new Secretary-General. The candidate I identified was George Rathjens; who also, before agreeing to eventually serve in that capacity, liked to know who the next President of Pugwash would be. And to complete the operation it was of course also necessary to secure the agreement of the Pugwash Council to both these appointments, and also to my appointment to serve as Chair of the Pugwash Council for the next Quinquennium, thereby providing some continuity in the running of Pugwash: this was indeed then perceived as quite important by the new Secretary General—inasmuch as it facilitated the continued support of the Pugwash Council to the Secretary General in the actual running of Pugwash, in particular in the organization of the Pugwash Workshops which constitute the main avenue for Pugwash to promote arms control and disarmament.

The entire transition was managed successfully at the 1997 “Quinquennial” Annual Conference. This was perhaps facilitated by the fact that in 1995 Pugwash had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (the motivation read: “…for their efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and in the longer run to eliminate such arms. It is fifty years this year since the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and forty years since the issuing of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. The Manifesto laid the foundations for the Pugwash Conferences, which have maintained a high level of activity to this day…).

During the next 5 years MA served excellently as President of Pugwash, by developing a quite friendly relation with George Rathjens, whom he supported in his job, by delivering inspiring speeches at the opening of every Annual Pugwash Conference, and by also participating in some Pugwash activities; he was particularly interested, because of his upbringing, in those focused on the Middle East situation.

I of course met with him at every Annual Pugwash Conference and often we also managed to talk mathematics; at that time some of his mathematical interests were on sufficiently simple problems to be understandable to me. And he was interested in my mathematical-physics activities; indeed, curiously enough, he had given a talk on a result of mine—indeed, possibly my most important scientific achievement—soon after it was published way back in 1971…being perhaps the very first mathematician to notice its relevance…

Recently MA wrote a paper entitled “The fine structure constant”, in which he indicated how this fundamental physical parameter could be computed within a purely mathematical context; and he e-mailed a preprint of it to me. I read the paper, but it was/is way beyond my mathematical competence. I was however quite impressed by the fact that the purely mathematical computation of this physical constant—in my opinion, an impossible task—yielded a result coincident with its value (to the extent it is experimentally known: up to 9 decimal figures). So I wrote back to him my amazement for this finding. He wrote back that the coincidence with the experimentally known value was not the most important aspect of his finding; what he considered important was the way his finding was arrived at—namely the part which was/is quite beyond my comprehension. It will be for others than myself to eventually assess how things stand on this matter. But we also took the opportunity to exchange several e-mails on Pugwash developments, in which he was still quite interested.

As this happened only weeks ago, the news of his death came to me as a sudden bad shock; he was of course quite old (89), but only 5 years older than myself…

MA was a man of extraordinary intelligence; of course, primarily in mathematics. But as well in world affairs. And his care for the welfare of humanity was very strong, as also demonstrated by his willingness to commit his time, his ability and his prestige to Pugwash.

A good example, to be followed.