Erik Christopher Zeeman (1925-2016)


Professor Sir Christopher Zeeman had a remarkable combination of mathematical and administrative abilities, allied to a considerable personal charm. He was a charismatic lecturer and an inspiration to a generation of British mathematicians. Zeeman's main contributions to mathematics were in topology, particularly in knot theory, the piecewise linear category, and dynamical systems.  

 Zeeman was born in Japan to a Danish father and a British mother.  They moved to England one year after his birth. He matriculated at Christ’s in 1943, and served as a Flying Officer with the Royal Air Force from 1943 to 1947:

“I was a navigator on bombers, trained for the Japanese theatre, but that was cancelled because they dropped the atomic bomb a week before we were due to fly out. Since the death rate was 60% in that theatre it probably saved my life, but at the time I was disappointed not to see action, although relieved not to have to bomb Japan, the land of my birth”.

He returned to Christ’s after the RAF, first as an undergraduate and then graduate student, completing his PhD under Shaun Wylie (of Bletchley Park fame) in 1953. He was a research and then teaching fellow of Gonville and Caius College from 1953 to 1964.  During this period he established himself as a leader in the field of geometric topology, with important work on knots and on the Poincaré conjecture.

In 1964 Zeeman moved from Cambridge to the new Warwick University, where he founded the Mathematics Department and created the Mathematics Institute. 

“I was 38 and had developed some fairly strong ideas on how to run a department and create a Mathematics Institute: I wanted to combine the flexibility of options that are common in most American universities, with the kind of tutorial care to be found in Oxford and Cambridge.”

 Legend has it that the top five academics he wanted all turned him down initially. So he wrote to each that the other four had said yes, whereupon they all said yes.  Certainly his first five appointments were stellar, and Warwick Mathematics became globally renowned.   He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1975.

In the 1970s Zeeman worked on dynamics and catastrophe theory, modelling systems where continuously varying inputs produce discontinuous outputs. Zeeman’s applications of catastrophe theory to the social sciences (prison riots, marital strife, economics, animal behaviour, and so on) caught the public imagination.

Zeeman brought the excitement of mathematics to the general public. In 1978 he delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, the first in their then 149-year history to be presented on the subject of mathematics.  As he wrote of mathematics in the introduction to the series:

"We are never quite sure whether it is an art or a science, whether we invent it or discover it, whether it is a man-made toy or a truth so universal that it is independent of the universe."

The series made him into the first mathematical television star, and inspired a new generation of mathematicians. The enthusiasm generated by the series led Zeeman to establish the Mathematics Masterclasses for both primary and secondary school children that now flourish in forty centres in the United Kingdom.  

From 1988 to 1995 Zeeman was Principal of Hertford College, Oxford. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of Christ’s in 1989, and received a knighthood in 1991. He returned to Cambridge regularly, with his wife Rosemary for events in College, and as an important early influence on Cambridge’s Newton Institute for the Mathematical Sciences. From 1992 he was the first chair of the Institute’s Scientific Board. He took the Institute’s architects to visit the Mathematics Institute in Warwick, and Zeeman’s ideas on how to design a mathematics building have influenced centres around the world.  In 2005 the University of Warwick's new Mathematics and Statistics building was named the Zeeman building in his honour. 


by Frank Kelly (Former Master)