Gian-Carlo Rota, 1932-1999

Obituary written by Richard Stanley for the SIAM Newletter on Discrete Mathematics

The mathematician and philosopher Gian-Carlo Rota died of heart failure, apparently in his sleep, around April 18, 1999. He was born in Vigevano, Italy, on April 27, 1932. His family left Italy in 1945 when his father was forced to flee Mussolini's death squads, and they lived for a time in Ecuador. His sister Ester Rota Gasperoni recounted their escape from Italy in the two books Orage sur le Lac and L'arbre des Capulies. Rota came to the United States on September 9, 1950, received a B.A. degree from Princeton University, and obtained a Ph.D. degree under Jacob T. Schwartz from Yale University in 1956. He held postdoctoral positions at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Harvard University before arriving at MIT in 1959. Except for a short hiatus during 1965-67 at Rockefeller University, he remained at MIT until his death, much to the good fortune of countless MIT undergraduates, graduate students, visitors, and faculty who were able to share his enthusiasm and joy for mathematics, philosophy, and life in general.

Of course the above brief chronicle of events in no way conveys what the man was really like. Being associated with Gianco meant far more than mathematical discussions and lectures. He became an important part of your personal life. He took a genuine interest in the well-being of all his associates and made many selfless sacrifices of time, money, and intellectual effort on their behalf. It goes without saying that this altruism, together with his beautifully prepared and delivered lectures, made him one of the most popular and respected teachers at MIT.

Rota had far-ranging mathematical interests, but his first love (developed after he received his doctorate in functional analysis) was combinatorics. He intuitively realized that combinatorics, which in the early 1960's was not considered a "serious" subject and was regarded with disdain by most leading mathematicians, had a tremendous potential to develop into a mature and important area that would enrich many other seemingly unrelated areas. It is this type of intuitive understanding that was characteristic of Rota's work - he was always looking for the "big picture" and trying to understand the true essence of any subject in which he was interested.

A seminal development for the future of combinatorics was the Foundations series of papers, inaugurated by Rota with the famous paper "On the Foundations of Combinatorial Theory I. Theory of Möbius Functions," Z. Wahrscheinlichkeitstheorie 2 (1964), 340-368. This paper immediately captured the imagination of many young mathematicians (including myself) and planted the seeds for many subsequent developments within combinatorics, such as the the theory of topological combinatorics and the tremendous expansion of matroid theory. Rota followed up the "Foundations I" paper with over 80 further papers in combinatorics (to say nothing of papers, essays, and reviews in many other areas of mathematics and in philosophy) that established him as the founding father and leading guru of the new subject of algebraic combinatorics.

There were many other facets to Rota's complex personality that I can only hint at here. He was deeply interested in phenomenology and wrote many papers and essays in this area. Although English was not his native language, he achieved a mastery of it far beyond most native speakers. He wrote innumerable completely honest and lucid essays on mathematicians and the practice of mathematics, many of them collected into the books Discrete Thoughts and Indiscrete Thoughts. He was working on a book of provocative quotations entitled Forbidden Thoughts at the time of his death.

Rota engaged in many outside mathematical activities. To mention just two of his editorial duties, he developed the Academic Press journal Advances in Mathematics virtually single-handedly into one of the leading journals of research mathematics, and he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Mathematics book series that contains definitive expositions of a wide range of mathematical topics. He held visiting positions, many of them long-term, at ten different universities throughout the world, and he was a consultant at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories since 1966. He received four honorary degrees (and was just about to receive another from Nankai University), and among his honors and awards are the Steele Prize of the American Mathematical Society (1988) and the James R. Killian Faculty Achievement Award at MIT (1996). He was appointed the Norbert Wiener Professor of Mathematics at MIT for a five-year period beginning in 1998, and he was the Colloquium Lecturer of the American Mathematical Society in 1998.

Gianco had the extraordinary ability to touch deeply the lives of all with whom he associated, whatever their background and experience. Rarely, if ever, has the passing of a professional mathematician left such a large void.