New College Mourns the Passing of Alumnus and Mathematician William Thurston
William P. Thurston (1946-2012), a world-renowned mathematician and member of New College’s charter class, died of cancer on August 21, 2012, in Rochester, N.Y. He was 65. Thurston revolutionized the study of topology in two and three dimensions, showing interplay between analysis, topology and geometry. For that, he — at age 37 — won the Fields Medal, mathematics’ highest honor often equated to the Nobel Prize.
“Bill Thurston so transformed our knowledge of low dimensional topology and geometry that it is now impossible to imagine the field before him,” said New College President and mathematician Donal O’Shea. “While Thurston’s mathematical legacy will live on, his untimely death has left us without his ethical compass, his uncommon humanity, his passion for education, and the deep sense of care that animated all he did and touched all who knew him: classmates, friends, colleagues. We will miss him very much.”
Graduating from New College in 1967, Thurston wrote his senior thesis on “A Constructive Foundation for Topology.” In 1968, Thurston was one of 11 recent New College graduates featured in a Time Magazine article titled “The 1967 New College All-Americans” (pictured above, Thurston is in the second row at left). He later received a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, and taught at MIT, Princeton, Berkeley, UC Davis and Cornell.
“Before Thurston, no one would have looked at a knot, and asked what the volume of the space outside it was,” O’Shea said. “No one would have looked at the universe, and asked how to carve it up into pieces each with a natural geometry — in fact, no one would have known what exactly a natural geometry is. At New College, we are proud to have provided the space for the fecundity of his imagination to ripen.”
When Thurston addressed New College’s graduating class in 1984, he opened with: “I thought a lot about what I could say to you, and there are a lot of interesting questions, but there only is really one thing I can speak to you about with any authority. So let's suppose that we have a three manifold which is atroidal and aspherical and suppose also that it has a finite grope action on it. And now since New College isn't about authority, let's take it and put it over here on the shelf.”
Thurston’s son Dylan, also a mathematician, told The New York Times that his dad “was a very visual thinker; he had powers to see spaces that no one before him could, and he was always drawing pictures of what he could see and doodles in notebooks, and we would talk about it. … Math was always very fun for him.”
In the foreword to The Best Writing on Mathematics 2010 by Mircea Pitici, Thurston wrote: "We humans have a wide range of abilities that help us perceive and analyze mathematical content. We perceive abstract notions not just through seeing but also by hearing, by feeling, by our sense of body motion and position. Our geometric and spatial skills are highly trainable, just as in other high-performance activities. In mathematics we can use the modules of our minds in flexible ways—even metaphorically. A whole-mind approach to mathematical thinking is vastly more effective than the common approach that manipulates only symbols."
Thurston is survived by his mother Margaret Thurston; his siblings Robert Thurston, Jean Baker and George Thurston; his wife Julian Muriel Thurston and their children, Hannah Jade and Liam; his children Nathaniel, Dylan and Emily from his first marriage to New College alumna Rachel Findley; and two grandchildren.