Renowned mathematician Hans Samelson dies; memorial service set for Nov. 6

Hans Samelson

Hans Samelson

Hans Samelson, professor emeritus of mathematics, died peacefully in his sleep of natural causes on Sept. 22 in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 89 years old.

A memorial service will be held Sunday, Nov. 6, at 3 p.m. at the Palo Alto Friends Meeting House, 957 Colorado Ave.

Samelson was one of the world's leading figures in the mathematics research areas of differential geometry, topology and the theory of Lie groups and Lie algebras—important in describing the symmetry of analytical structures. He was the author of many research articles and two widely used textbooks—an undergraduate book about linear algebra and a graduate text on the theory of Lie algebras.

"Hans was a marvelous expositor," said Professor R. James Milgram of the Mathematics Department. "His book on Lie algebras presents all the basic material in a wonderfully compact yet accessible form. In fact, that thin little book has become one of the basic references in the theory. And it was the same when I would go to his office to ask him questions. The answers were always concise, yet got to the heart of what mattered."

The eldest of three sons, Samelson was born on March 3, 1916, in Strassburg, Germany (now Strasbourg, France). His parents—one of Protestant and one of Jewish background—were both pediatricians. He spent most of his youth in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), and began his advanced mathematical education there, at the University of Breslau. His family helped him leave Nazi Germany in 1936 for Zurich, Switzerland, where he studied with famed geometer Heinz Hopf and received his doctorate in 1940 from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

In 1941, he accepted a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and immigrated to the United States; he arrived by ship six months before the United States entered World War II and acquired U.S. citizenship several years later. After leaving Princeton, he held faculty positions at the University of Wyoming (1942-1943), Syracuse University (1943-1946) and the University of Michigan (1946-1960) before coming to Stanford in 1960.

An outstanding teacher of mathematics, he was recognized with the Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1977. He served as chair of the Mathematics Department from 1979 to 1982.

Though he became emeritus in 1986, he remained professionally active throughout his retirement, publishing articles on both contemporary and historical mathematical topics. One solved an architectural puzzle associated with the construction of the Brunelleschi Dome in Florence, Italy.

"Samelson was a man of outstanding character and personality," said Leon Simon, the Robert Grimmett Professor of Mathematics. "His modesty, selfless enthusiasm for mathematics and readiness to help were legendary among his colleagues and friends."

On the occasion of his 70th and 85th birthdays, conferences were held in his honor at Stanford, attended by the world's leading figures in mathematics research, including many of his former students and colleagues. "This was a small measure of the great esteem in which he was held by his students, colleagues and the entire mathematics community," said Yakov Eliashberg, chair of Stanford's Mathematics Department. "He will be greatly missed."

In addition to his professional activities, Samelson had broad personal interests in human culture and civilization and spoke several languages. He enjoyed classical music, opera and jazz, and played bassoon and recorder in several local orchestras. His loves of hiking, skiing and traveling on a modest budget were kindled in his youth and continued through his retirement.

His experiences in Nazi Germany and his humanist sensibility gave him a profound distrust of nationalism and militarism, and he was deeply troubled by recent trends in national political leadership. Samelson contributed generously to environmental and liberal political organizations. He was active in the Palo Alto Friends Meeting (Quakers) during his retirement, serving as treasurer for several years.

Samelson was married twice, to the late Renate Reiner in 1940 and to Nancy Morse in 1956. He is survived by his wife, Nancy, of Stanford; a brother, Franz, of Manhattan, Kan.; children Peter of Verona, N.J.; Amy of San Jose, Calif.; and Roger, of Corvallis, Ore.; and two grandchildren.

Donations in Samelson's memory can be made to the Samelson Memorial Fund, Department of Mathematics, Stanford University, Building 380, 450 Serra Mall, Stanford, CA 94305-2125; to the Friends Committee on Legislation, 926 J St. #707, Sacramento, CA 95814-2707; or to the Palo Alto Friends Meeting, 957 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94303, http://www.pafm.org.