Math Professor Bott Dies at Age 82

Raoul Bott, a prestigious mathematician and Harvard professor emeritus who taught at the College for over 40 years, died of lung cancer on Dec. 20 at his home in Carlsbad, Calif. He was 82.

Bott, who was Graustein professor of mathematics emeritus, first joined Harvard as a professor in 1959 and stayed in his position until 1999.

Even in his California retirement he still remained an active part of Harvard life, according to his colleague of over 20 years, Clifford Taubes, the Petschek professor of mathematics and chair of the Mathematics department.

“He very much loved Harvard and regretted having to move away...for reasons of his wife’s health,” Taubes said. “He came back a number of times in the past year.”

Bott was widely known as an outstanding figure in geometry and topology, contributing to many theories that became fundamental concepts in the field. Among these theories was the Bott periodicity theorem of 1959, a discovery which has been compared by mathematicians to the sciences’ discovery of the periodic table of elements.

He also had long-standing and successful collaborations with other eminent mathematicians, producing, among others, the Atiyah-Bott fixed-point theorem concerning fixed points on mathematical maps, and the Borel-Weil-Bott theorem, which had a large influence on representation theory.

“He was fundamental to the development of modern geometry and topology,” Taubes said.

Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross, a mathematics graduate student under Bott from 1974 to 1978, as well as a colleague of his in the department later, described Bott’s impact as being not only in his theorems, but also in the generations of students that he “left his mark on” at Harvard.

“[Class with him] was an amazing experience, was like drinking from the original stream, as a lot of it was his own work” Gross said. “He was just a presence in the department, a lot of students turned to him for support.”

Taubes also remembered the classes he took from Bott as a Physics graduate student.

“I learned how to do mathematics, the beauty of mathematics, from Raoul Bott,” Taubes said. “And he taught us how to look for beauty in everything, not just in mathematics, but in people and all things...he was deeply loved by everybody who knew him, he was a role model for everyone.”

Gross agreed.

“He was just a wonderful guy,” he said. “Many of us who came to the department [as professors] came because he had created such a good atmosphere.”

Bott was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1923, but moved with his family to Canada via England with the approach of World War II.

He studied engineering at McGill University in Montreal, then went on to receive a doctorate in science from the Carnegie Institute of Technology.

Before coming to Harvard, he taught at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, the University of Michigan, and the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques in France.

He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the recipient of several awards in his lifetime, including the American Mathematical Society’s Leroy P. Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 1990, the National Medal of Science in 1987, and the Wolf Foundation Prize in Mathematics in 2000.

Bott is survived by his wife of 58 years, Phyllis, a son, Anthony, three daughters, Candace Bott, Jocelyn Scott, and Renee Bott, and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at Memorial Church on Jan. 29 at 1:30 p.m.

—Staff writer Alexandra C. Bell can be reached at