In Memoriam: Shiing-Shen Chern, 1911-2004
By Thomas F. Banchoff
One of the great ones is gone.
Professor Shiing-Shen Chern, one of the outstanding mathematicians of the twentieth century, died at age 93 in Tianjin, China, on December 3, 2004 at the Nankai Institute that he helped to found on the campus of Tianjin University where he received his undergraduate degree in 1930. He received the National Medal of Science in 1975 and the Wolf Prize in 1983/4. He edited a volume on Global Geometry and Analysis in the MAA Studies in Mathematics Series in 1967; his article ?Curves and Surfaces in Euclidean Space,? in that volume, was awarded the Chauvenet Prize in 1970. He was a member of the MAA for 55 years.
Prof. Chern earned his Ph.D. in 1936 in Hamburg with Wilhelm Blaschke. He spent a post-doctoral year with Elie Cartan in Paris, and returned to teach in China. He visited the Institute for Advanced Study in 1943-5, and returned to the US in 1949 for another short stay at the IAS. He taught at the University of Chicago until 1960 when he came to the University of California, Berkeley, until he retired in 1979. He directed 47 Ph.D. theses, and, by latest count, had 467 mathematical descendants.
In his ?retirement?, he spent his efforts in two research institutes that he helped to found. He served as the first director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley from 1981 to 1984. In 1985, he was one the chief founders of the Nankai Institute in Tianjin, China, for which he served as honorary director until his death. The MSRI produced an excellent tribute to him in 1998; see http://www.msri.org/chern_04.pdf.
His work influenced a broad range of fields, primarily global differential geometry. His undergraduate differential geometry courses at Chicago and Berkeley was legendary. For the past several years, he and I have been preparing a new edition of the full set of notes for that course, hopefully to be published soon.
There is impressive testimony of his influence on his students and on geometers throughout the world in Chern, A Great Geometer of the Twentieth Century, a collection of personal statements and articles compiled in 1992 by his student, Fields medalist S. T. Yau. (The 1998 expanded edition is available through the AMS Bookstore.) That volume includes many reminiscences that ?reflect the wisdom of this great mathematician and his warmth in interacting with young geometers?. My contribution, ?On Becoming and Being a Chern Student? chronicles my personal debt of gratitude for his support throughout my career, even when I moved away from his favorite differential forms approach in the direction of polyhedral differential geometry and computer visualization of surfaces. Another good resource is the biographical statement in the History of Mathematics site at St. Andrew?s College:
My final visit with Prof. Chern took place in August, 2002. His driver brought me from Beijing to Tianjin where he lived in a house especially built for him at the Nankai Institute. When I arrived, he told me I was invited to go with him for a luncheon at the newly opened Tianjin Science and Technology Museum, and I was surprised when we got there to see the entire staff lined up to welcome him. I was even more surprised when we were ushered into a museum wing featuring a golden bust of Prof. Chern and a large wall engraved with his sayings. He took it all in stride. I later learned he was the one who originally came up with the idea of that excellent science museum. (For more on the museum, see http://www.china.org.cn/english/scitech/39898.htm.)
The following day, at the opening of the International Congress of Mathematicians in Beijing, Prof. Chern was honorary chair. Next to him on the platform was China?s President Jiang Zemin, who personally helped him adjust his microphone. In his introductory remarks, Prof. Chern stated ?Mathematics used to be individual work. But now we have a public. In such a situation a prime duty seems to be to make our progress available to the people. There is clearly room for popular expositions. I also wonder if it is possible for research articles to be preceded by a historical and popular introduction.?
Noting that modern science has become very competitive, he recalled the Confucian doctrine centered on human relationship, and called for ?an injection of the human element that will make our subject more healthy and enjoyable?. That is a worthy challenge for all of us who revere the memory of this great man.