Prof. William Paul Thurston, mathematics, a scholar who revolutionized the study of three-dimensional spaces, died at the age of 65 on Aug. 21.
Thurston died of melanoma — a type of skin cancer with which he was diagnosed a year ago — in Rochester, N.Y.
In 1982, at age 37, Thurston received the 1982 Fields Medal, which is considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics. Through his work studying topology, or shapes and surfaces with certain theoretical properties Thurston was able to demonstrate how geometry, topology and other mathematical fields intertwine.
According to Prof. James West, mathematics, Thurston made a lasting impact not only at Cornell — where he began teaching at 2003 — but also in the international mathematical community.
“It was a great time for topology,” West said, adding that he attended many of Thurston’s seminars at Cornell. “He was certainly the most creative and powerful mind we’ve had on the topology faculty since the institution was founded.”
Prof. Karen Vogtmann, mathematics –– who met Thurston at Berkeley College in New York, N.Y. when she was an undergraduate and he was a graduate student –– said she has been “in awe” of him since then.
“I wouldn’t be doing the mathematics I do if it weren’t for what he started. He definitely had a big influence on my mathematical life,” Vogtmann said. “And he had also made a lasting impact on the entire world.”
Thurston’s creative style of thinking enabled him to make breakthroughs in the field of mathematics, Vogtmann said.
“He changed the way everybody thought about topology ... He thought in ways that nobody had ever thought before and made connections that nobody ever saw before,” Vogtmann said. “He was just an amazing mathematician.”
Prior to teaching at Cornell, Thurston was a faculty member at Princeton University for 17 years. Prof. John Smillie, mathematics, recalled working on his post-doctorate there with Thurston.
“He had a large effect on me and my career,” Smillie said.
Thurston’s research not only earned him the respect and admiration of his colleagues but also several prestigious awards.
Thurston was the second mathematician in the world to receive the Alan T. Waterman Award for his research in 1979. More recently, Thurston won the 2005 American Mathematical Society Book Prize and the 2012 AMS Leroy P. Steele Prize for a Seminal Contribution to Research — also regarded as some of the highest distinctions in mathematics.
“The strength of [Cornell’s math] department in topology is widely recognized worldwide because of Bill Thurston, who is a giant in mathematics,” said Prof. Laurent Saloff-Coste, chair of the mathematics department, in a University press release.