Special Projects Director

Robert Osserman


Our esteemed and beloved friend and colleague, Robert (Bob) Osserman died at home on the evening of November 30th, surrounded by his family and loved ones.

Bob is remembered as not only a first-class mathematician, teacher, and mentor, but as an enormously cultured, thoughtful, and wise man who generously shared his insights into how mathematical ways of thought interact with and illuminate our culture. We are extraordinarily fortunate to have had Bob's participation in MSRI as both a Deputy Director and, for so many years, as our Special Projects Director. MSRI's public outreach efforts set a high standard under his leadership that will long be remembered and admired; indeed, his legacy of public conversations on cultural matters related to mathematics is a jewel in MSRI's treasury.

Bob Osserman wrote his PhD thesis on the subject of Riemann surfaces under the direction of Lars V. Ahlfors at Harvard University. He continued to work on geometric function theory and later on differential geometry, combining the two in a new global theory of minimal surfaces. Bob also worked on the isoperimetric inequality and related geometric questions. After obtaining his PhD, he joined the faculty of Stanford University where he remained until his retirement, with periods of leave to serve as Head of the Mathematics Branch at the Office of Naval Research, Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Paris and Guggenheim Fellow at the University of Warwick. Some later papers were on astronomy, geometry, cartography and complex function theory. Most recently, he wrote on geometric and other aspects of Saarinen’s “Gateway Arch” in St. Louis.

In 1987, he was named Mellon Professor for Interdisciplinary Studies, and, in 1990, he joined MSRI as half-time Deputy Director.

In 1995, he took on the new position of Special Projects Director at MSRI. He became increasingly involved with outreach activities to the general public, starting with the Fermat Fest in 1993 and the subsequent production of a videotape with accompanying booklet. In 1999, he engaged in a public conversation with playwright Tom Stoppard on Mathematics in Arcadia, which is also available on videotape, as is another public event, a Dialog on Galileo: Science, Mathematics, History and Drama in association with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and their production of the play "Galileo" by Bertolt Brecht. A public conversation with Steve Martin entitled "Funny Numbers" is available on videotape through AMS. Later public events included “The John Cage Legacy: Randomness in Music and Mathematics,” with Persi Diaconis, Merce Cunningham, and the musicians of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and “M*A*T*H*” with Alan Alda, which may be viewed on DVD, or directly on the MSRI website via VMath.

While at Stanford, he developed and taught a new course—jointly with a physicist and an engineer—designed to present mathematics, science, and technology to a non-technical audience. A portion of the course was elaborated in a book entitled "Poetry of the Universe—A Mathematical Exploration of the Cosmos" intended to provide the general public with an introduction to cosmology—focusing on a number of mathematical ideas that have played a key role. This book is also available in foreign editions.

During 2004–05, he chaired the committee charged with preparing materials for the April 2005 Mathematics Awareness Month whose theme is "Mathematics and the Cosmos." Among those materials is a film called "The Right Spin" with astronaut Michael Foale, available on DVD from the AMS.