Monday, 21 December 2020

Πeter Neumann is no more...

Peter M. Neumann liked to spell his name with a Π (the Greek letter Pi). He preferred to call himself a plain Mr. and not Dr.  He was a proud recipient of the OBE in 2008 for his contributions to Mathematics. I had started writing this piece on the 16th Dec. 2020 while trying to order by thoughts to send him a birthday greeting for his 80th birthday on the 28th December; but his death on the 18th Dec. from Covid has forced me to turn it into an obit, my homage to the man who I considered to be my father, in the years after the death of my real father. 

16th December:
Πeter Neumann will turn 80 on the 28th December 2020. He lives these days in a Care home in the outskirts of Oxford.  Given the Covid situation there can be no party to celebrate the special birthday. We, his students, have been encouraged to send him a postcard with a few lines -- but so many memories came tumbling down when I tried to write those few lines that I thought it might be best to write them down as a separate piece. 

But first the message I wrote to Sylvia asking her to convey my good wishes to Πeter on his 80th birthday on the 28th December:


Dear Sylvia, 

I have been meaning to write to you for a while but have refrained, simply because I am a coward and did not want to know the news. The news coming out of care homes in England have been so scary that I simply did not want to hear that Πeter was one of those who had been affected. But now I know. A message from Cheryl and Röggi told me that Πeter had had Covid but had recovered. Thank God! I hope you are keeping well and have been able to keep in touch with Πeter all through the crazy last months. Are you still doing the crosswords together?

I do not know how I can send a postcard to Πeter from India that would reach him  in time for his birthday. So I am writing a few lines below for him -- I will be grateful if you kindly send it on to Πeter if he is still using email or give him a printout if he would prefer that. Sorry to bother you but I don't see any other option at the moment. 

Let me also wish the two of you for Christmas and for a better year ahead.

Best regards,

Dear $\Pi$eter,

Do you remember that you used to teach us how to hold the chalk so that it would not squeak and how to make the most efficient use of the space on a blackboard while lecturing?

Do you remember telling a speaker who had just rattled off a few statements of theorems without proofs at your Wednesday Kinder Seminar, 'We believe you but we would like to understand you?'

Do you remember visiting us in Summertown House with a huge bunch of flowers when all three of us were down with Chicken Pox?

These are just a few of the many reasons why we love, admire and respect you and why we cherish the memories of those years that we spent in Oxford learning from you, learning not just group theory but also how to be a good human being.

Today on your 80th birthday let me take the opportunity to thank you for sharing and giving so generously, for helping me in so many different ways and for always keeping track of me, even long after I left Oxford.

Heartiest Congratulations on turning 80! Here's hoping and praying that you will continue to remain well and interested in the world around you in the years ahead. 

Much love and best regards,

But within an hour came the reply from Sylvia, with the terrible news:

Dear Meenaxi,
I don’t know how you got that message. Peter does have Covid and is very ill.
I’m sure Cheryl knows that he has not recovered.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
Best wishes

Sylvia also gave Cheryl the same alarming news -- that Πeter is very ill. Sylvia also asked Cheryl to stop the process of sending cards (as she did not think they would get there before the worst happened). That was terrifying.

18th Dec.
Sylvia was right. The awful but not unexpected news was not long in coming -- Πeter passed away in his sleep just 10 days short of his 80th birthday. 


I had visited Πeter there last September. It had hurt to see him there like that -- dressed in casuals and not able to get up to greet me. That was not how I remembered Πeter -- he was always dressed smartly and formally, with a (checked tweed) jacket and tie, Πeter would always rise to say hello and give a tight hug whenever I went to meet him in his office at Queen's College, Oxford. But there he was in Cumnor Hill House, not being able to get up without help, entirely confined to a wheel chair for his movements. That was the consequence of a stroke he suffered in 2018 that left his left side paralysed. That was particularly tragic since Πeter was left-handed; but the fighter that he was, Πeter had learnt to at least be able to sign with his right hand and to be able to write on a smart phone with his right hand, and also to use a battery operated wheelchair to move about by himself. 

Peter and Sylvia
I had gone with Sylvia that day. First I went to 403 Meadow Lane, the house number itself a source of mathematical delight for Πeter because it was the product of the first pair 13 and 31 of prime numbers that are images of each other [Sylvia kindly adds that he might have preferred a prime]. After lunch we had gone to Cumnor Hill House where Πeter lived. Sylvia goes to meet Πeter every afternoon. They normally have afternoon tea together and do the Guardian Crossword puzzle, supposedly one of the toughest one can have. The facility is quite nice and the Care-givers very friendly. Both Sylvia and Πeter had no complaints on that score. But for me, to see Πeter there in that state, was just such a shock that I was afraid I wouldn't be able to hide my shock and  tried to disappear as much as I could, into the background. I had taken a copy of my book for Πeter that I had dedicated to him. He started reading the first page and it did not take him long to find a mistake --  "One should never write 'comprise of', one can write 'consist of' but 'comprise' must never be followed by 'of'." Don't know why, but I was very happy to be told off that day -- that was the old Πeter I knew, fussy about every word, never happy with anything short of the perfect. But still I was not sure that Πeter had really understood who I was. He made the right noises and seconded whatever Sylvia said but could he really place me? I was not sure, till that moment, when he turned around to me, in the middle of his physiotherapy exercises and asked 'It is exactly 30 years ago that we had first met, is it not, Meenaxi?'

Nothing could have made me happier. I needed no further proof that (a) Πeter knew who I was and (b) his brain was still as sharp as it always was. And my mind went back to the day, almost exactly 30 years ago in the autumn of 1989 when I had arrived in Oxford and had met Πeter for the first time at a welcome party of the Maths Institute. Πeter came and introduced himself saying, ' I am Πeter Neumann, call me Πeter.' But I told him that in India we were not used to calling our teachers by their first names, and that it would take me a while to get used to that. Till then I would call him Dr. Neumann. Peter listened to me and then responded, 'Okay, till such a time as you learn to call me Πeter I shall also address you as Mrs. Bhattacharjee!' 

Those years in Oxford were the most challenging, yet the most formative years for me. One learnt so much simply by observing Πeter and how he went about his work. I cannot imagine having a better supervisor. He was a very hard task master, and would give me no concessions for the fact that I had just landed from India (and was having a hard time coping) but he would not hold it against me either -- I was just expected to raise myself to the expected level, regardless of how large the leap was. Once very early on when I had submitted some handwritten written work to him, he returned it with the extra comment, 'You have a very good handwriting, but I would be happy if you would TEX in your written work in future.' I had never used a computer in my life, and had no clue what he meant by TEX it in. I was unhappy that he expected me to learn everything so quickly.  Another time, he asked me to look up a research paper which, on further scrutiny, turned out to be written entirely in German. When I complained, Πeter pretended not to understand my problem by simply saying, 'So?' Looking back, his insistence that I lift myself up was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. Because all that pressure tested me and I came out stronger.

He was also very proud of his many students he has supervised during his long and illustrious career, in group theory as well as in the history of mathematics. Many of them have gone on to become reputed mathematicians  -- Cheryl Praeger, Peter Cameron, Jan Saxl, Martin Liebeck, to name a few. One time, at a large St. Andrews Groups meeting, someone asked Πeter why he was not speaking. Πeter beamed back and replied 'I am not speaking but at least 20 of my academic offspring are!' Πeter has supervised about 40 D.Phil. students and his academic family must run into several hundreds at least. When one looks at his entire mathematical output, one sees immediately that he invested much more time and energy in his students (at every level including school children who took part in the UK Maths Challenges) than he did in his research. If it was a choice between helping a doctoral student with this work or working on his own research, there was absolutely no question where his priorities lay. In one of his letters to me he once wrote, 'The ideal job is the one I have: teaching undergraduates and graduates; research and administration. Enormously varied and enormously demanding.' (7th Feb. 1993) 

Those days, at any point of time, Πeter had about 5 D.Phil. students at different stages of their work. For example, in the year I joined, there was Röggi Möller who was one year senior to me, Simon Blackburn and Julia Nicholson joined along with me, and Geetha Venkataraman joined a year later. Although they would be normally working on different topics there would be at least one in the group who was senior and who you ask all the 'stupid questions' that you did not dare to ask Πeter. That was a huge help. [So, among the five of us, Röggi and I worked on infinite groups, Geetha and Simon on finite groups and Julia was doing history of mathematics and writing a thesis on Abel.] Then there was the Wednesday midday 'Kinder Seminar' in Πeter's office at Queens where not just his own students but other students also doing algebra or group theory were welcome. The idea was; Πeter would provide the coffee, we would provide the theorems. Πeter reserved the right to tell the speaker what he thought of the lecture publicly as well as in private after the end. All of us had to speak at least once each term. And we were terrified of the yellow notes in which Πeter would write down his remarks and comments, which he would then discuss with the speaker after the seminar. We all were completely scared of having to speak at that seminar, but thanks to the practice we had there, we learnt how to use the pieces of chalk, how to use the blackboard, and how to present our material. Πeter was insistent that it was not enough to have good mathematics to present, one must also be able to present it well.

Sample of  Πeter's handwriting
Πeter was also a very avid musician, like many others in his family. He would carry his violin and viola to most conferences and then play as part of a string quartet most evenings after the end of the day's academic sessions. He was the son of celebrated mathematicians Bernhard and Hanna Neumann, and had mathematicians among his siblings, children and relations. His family had strong German roots, so he was fluent in German. [Sylvia adds, His German, though fluent, was by no means flawless; he was not brought up speaking German, and in German he didn’t seem so bothered by grammatical inaccuracies as in English.] But he also cultivated his French to perfection in order to be able to read Galois and make sense of Galois' life, the person and his work. But there was much more to him that all that -- he was simply interested in the world around him, in getting to know the people he came in contact with, in feeding the ducks down in Iffley river, or simply sitting down with the great big globe they had in their home [that showed both political boundaries as well as physical features] and try to learn about some hitherto unexplored corner of the world. And he had such a warm radiant personality that people who had met him even once, that too briefly, never forgot him.

And he liked doing whatever he did, well. So no cutting corners, no shoddy last minute stuff, no rushed mess from Πeter, he would find time for everything, and he had the most beautiful handwriting that I know. And he was very particular about certain things -- people's names, for example. He made absolutely sure that he knew how to correctly pronounce and spell the names of everyone around him. 

I had my two and a half year old son with me in Oxford. Although nursery facilities for children of  students were available, they were so expensive that there was no way I could afford it with my stipend of 336 pounds per month. So the first thing that Πeter helped me get was accommodation in Summertown House where I could avail of a nursery for much cheaper, if only for 3 hours each weekday morning. He then helped me change college to St. Hugh's where I got a modest college bursary to supplement my meagre scholarship amount. And because he knew we did not have much money left over for travel, whenever he wanted me to go to attend a conference within the UK, he would drive down so that he could take a few of his students (including me) along. Amlan called them Nanaji and Naniji and they never treated Amlan differently from a real grandson. His first granddaughter Annie was just a year older than Amlan. So not only would he invite the three of us over for Christmas, there would be as many presents for Amlan under the tree as there would be for Annie. And when we protested, he would smile and say 'They are little children; they will fight.' 

Not just Christmas, there were many parties that Πeter would host at home and invite his friends in mathematics and graduate students. His wife Sylvia, who taught mathematics at the Open University,  was an excellent cook and she would bake delicious pies and roasted meats for huge groups of students to devour. Πeter would generously hand around the drinks -- there was never any question of running short of anything. Those parties were just amazing. Of course the party that I remember most vividly was the party that Πeter hosted on the evening of my viva to celebrate my getting my D.Phil.. He had asked me earlier for a guest list and when I had faintly protested that it could be a bit premature he said, 'You better do well in your Viva, otherwise all the food and preparations for the party will be wasted :-)' And he organised similar parties to celebrate successful D,Phil. Defences for all his D.Phil. students.  And when I asked him how I could ever repay all that he said, 'If there is anything you like about how I have treated you, do it to your own students when your time comes.' Not sure how he managed but Πeter did seem to be able to have a personal connect with most people he came in contact with, and most of these bonds were for life.

I had some big personal problems during the time I was at Oxford. That meant that Πeter had to shelter me and my son for some days in his own home, then arrange for me to get a paid trip back to India to sort matters out. But he was firm that I should return, 'You will need your degree, more than ever before now. Please come back and finish it.' Never have I received sounder advice.  And then when I was done with my D.Phil. and was returning to India, he was worried about how I would manage to carry on with research from so far away.  Πeter could not stay away from Oxford for too long, but his academic supervisor, Prof. Graham Higman FRS, was retiring that year. Graham knew Binoy Tamuli Sir in Guwahati and had the time. He would be happy to come and spend a semester in Guwahati, working with me and teaching a course to the students at Gauhati University. I was thrilled, but Gauhati University dragged its feet over the formalities of the invitation and that visit never happened.  

But Πeter did not stop helping and supporting me in every way he could in the time. I have as many as 21 hand-written letters (most of them running into as many as 4 pages) that Πeter wrote to me in the period from when I left Oxford after getting my D.Phil. in September 1992 till the summer of 1995 when I joined IIT Guwahati and probably started having access to email. In these letters he gave me sound advice on many different fronts, discussed about publication of papers from my thesis --which journals I should send them to, how I should handle the revisions etc.  as well as asked me more about my job prospects and job applications, and encouraged me to apply for funds to attend conferences etc. 'Do put my name down as referee wherever it is needed,' he told me in the very first letter he wrote to me on the 26th September 1992. In that same letter he wrote, 'You were one of the most demanding students I have supervised, but you have also been the most rewarding. I enjoy all, well nearly all, of my work, but these last three years have been the most interesting and pleasurable I have had, particularly insofar as students have been concerned. And much of that has been you.'

And when I fell into the hole sometime after getting back, he tried to raise my spirits, saying, 'Research, everybody feels gloomy about it for a year or two after their doctorate.' (3rd May 1993) He would also talk about how his other students were doing, and also update me on news of his own family. Talking about how well Julia and Geetha were doing and how close they were to submission he once wrote to me in another letter, 'What a great excitement students always are.' (3rd May 1993). He would often write to say that he was completely 'mystified' by how things worked in India. In his letter of 30th June 1994 he writes, 'In fact, I am mystified by the whole system in India. Can you write and explain to me about the Indian University system? About what it means to be an undergraduate or a graduate student; what it means to be a lecturer, or senior lecturer, or reader or professsor? What do these various people do in terms of lecturing and problem-classes and tutoring? What is expected of each grade as regards research? Or administration? Is Gauhati University very different from Delhi University? (Where does Geetha's St. Stephen's College fit in?) And can you write objectively about why it is that an appointment to a readership can be challenged in court [I doubt if that is possible in England].'

And when he thought I was in the wrong, he did not mince words to say so. For example, in a letter dated 7th June 1994, Peter wrote, 'I am sorry that relations with Mr. X has soured. Yes. I think you must wait until whatever it is that is going wrong blows away. But I think you ought also to try not to write (or even think) sentences like "Now that he has not been able to have his way, he will try to make my life as difficult for me as possible." My experience is that if you expect difficulties, then they will materialise. If, on the other hand, you can understand whatever disappointment he has suffered, and expect him (and everyone else, of course) to operate as normal, then you should find that that is what happens.' But then he would also be acutely aware that I might not like his giving me such advice, and so he would quickly turn things around by writing, 'Sorry to pontificate like a second rate uncle.'

The contents of those letters bear testimony to many of the qualities one admired in Πeter, for example, his great sense of humour and the fact that most of the jokes were at his own expense; 'I went to see a doctor earlier this week. He diagnosed  bursitis (etymologically it means an inflamed purse, which mine, I'm afraid, will never be), and gave me an injection. Since most of the pain has now gone, or at least, moved elsewhere, he was probably right.' (26th Sept. 1992).  Wanting to always remain in the clear, in another letter he explained to me at length why he hesitated to act as Editor for papers submitted by close friends and favourite students to journals he was in the editorial board of. Elsewhere he wrote at length about how to go about organising large conferences. And when I sent him a clipping of a piece I had written on him in the Sentinel, he responded in his typical manner, 'I am horrified to discover how close to a saint I am -- though highly delighted, somewhat embarrassed, and greatly entertained. That's not the person I thought I was.' But even that time, he did not forget to try to help me write better, by saying, 'Still, I like your writing style (when you remember not to produce complicated sentences of inordinate length).'

L to R: MB, Shreemayee Bora, Pradipeswar Bhattacharjee,
Πeter, Bhaba Sarma, Shabeena Ahmed and Moloy Dutta

Soon after I joined IIT Guwahati, I organised a lecture course on Permutation Groups and Πeter came, along with Dugald Macpherson from Leeds (Πeter's academic grandson) and Röggi Möller from Iceland (my senior sibling by a year), and we had the first international activity at IITG. That also resulted in a monograph all four of us co-authored. That trip to Assam in India also resulted in Πeter going around most places in the world with an Assamese gamosa around his neck. Πeter would sweat a lot, hence he found our cotton gamosas very useful and the right size. That made me very proud of course. When it  was time to celebrate his 60th birthday twenty years ago, I was in Leeds doing a post-doc with Dugald. A few of us -- Röggi, Julia, Cheryl and I -- got together with a few of his actual students at that time and put up a nice event to mark the occasion. Πeter, we would like to believe, was mighty pleased about it all. My special task was to put together his academic family tree in the form of a book with contributions from most of his academic descendants.

As the years went by, I realised that I could not be happy being a mathematics teacher and researcher for the rest of my life. While I enjoyed the research I did and was a reasonable teacher, I somehow felt I was not committed and creative enough. I was happy when I produced a nice result, but I didn’t dance around in joy. Once when I waited for a full week before telling Πeter about having solved a problem that had been bothering us for months, he shook his head gravely and said, ‘Wish you would show a little more excitement, a little more passion.’ So Πeter was not surprised when I informed his of my decision to give up mathematics and to move to the social sciences. He knew me well and he could see that I was happier when I was out and about with people than I was when I was at my table. 

And when I told him of my decision to marry Stephan he immediately offered to do the honours and give me away, since my father was no longer alive. So Sylvia and Πeter came to stay in Volkach two days before the event because Peter wanted to help to 'put up the tent' and to assist in any other way they could. And in his speech, he told everyone present, 'Different people collect different things -- shells, stamps, pens, watches -- Meenaxi collects degrees.' And he never lost interest in what I was doing, even when it had no longer anything to do with mathematics. He would have come to Amsterdam for my Viva for my second Ph.D. in Anthropology if the dates had not clashed with some other prior commitment. By his continued interest, he made me feel  that he would always be there for me, to hold my hand when I needed help, to applaud me when I had crossed a milestone, and to reprimand me, like a father, if I made a mistake. And that was very reassuring. 

So much so that I visited Πeter soon after the death of my husband last summer. I needed to see him, to be told by him that I would be okay. And he did... he listened, he wished me well, he made me feel that he cared.... But when he died, he was all alone. Even Sylvia could not be by his side. She had not met him in months, because of the Covid restrictions. They could only talk over Face time. And now he is gone... the man who loved people, who gave so much to every soul he came in contact with, died alone in that home where I had gone to visit him. And to add to the poignancy of it all, vaccination of senior people in his age group has already started in Oxford -- so it was just a matter of a few days. My heart breaks at the thought... to think that there is nothing left of that incredible human being with those twinkling eyes and that warm smiling is all over...I have lost a father, a second time over, and the world has lost an extraordinary human being. 

I have no better way to console myself  at Πeter's demise than use Πeter's own words which he had written to me after getting the news of my father's death. In a letter dated 7 December 1993, he wrote, ' I have spoken with Sylvia. What can we say? We both send you our love and sympathy. We know how important your father was to you, and no amount of rational thinking about the fact that the quality of life had diminished with old age, and that by now, it was a release, can be much comfort. Remember only two things. The first is that it had to happen. The second, that you gave him enormous pleasure and pride.'

Rest in peace, dear Πeter!

[Two photos have come from Shreemayee Bora]

The LMS announcement

Below is the link to Peter's obituary at The Queen's College web site.  There you also find a link to Peter's obituary in The Guardian and further tributes.   At the bottom of the page, you will find information about his funeral.


  1. Beautiful Meenaxi. It brought back so many of our shared experiences with Peter. I find that with my students I too tend to be particularly finicky about how they write. I have learnt that from Peter, but I am sure if were reading this he would give me a list of corrections :) I shall miss that. I shall miss him and thank you for writing this piece.

    1. Thanks, Geetha for writing about Peter. He was simply wonderful, but also a very meticulous teacher. May we find the energy to keep the flame burning...

  2. Sanjay Dutta had this to say on Peter's demise: I had attended one of his lectures, "Galois, the famous failure" in IITG. I had a small tête-à-tête with him after the talk and remember him saying, "Assam is more East than North" reflecting my own view in the context of Northeast Indian states. May his soul rest in eternal peace!

  3. This is a very moving tribute to Peter who was obviously a wonderful supervisor and a fascinating man. I only met him once maybe with you in Oxford but I have heard so much about him from you and Dugald. You really bring him alive in your description. A sad loss.

    1. Thanks, Silvia, for these kind words. Yes, Peter was amazing. We have been both very lucky in our respective supervisors...may you carry on the light...

  4. A wonderful remembrance of Peter and his impact on you and so many other people. I now have a particular yellow book to read that you brought into the world.
    My condolences on both your losses in the past year as well as to the Neumann family.

    1. Not sure who you are, but thank you very much for your kind words about my write up. Peter was much bigger and better than anything mere words can do justice to. May his soul rest in peace.

  5. Another thing amazing about Peter was that he never wanted his name on papers that came directly out of his student's theses; he insisted that they be single authored papers. As a result I do not have a single paper coauthored by him, even though he had actively helped me write each of my papers and also to get them published. He would not want to be a co-author unless he had actually contributed actively to the mathematics contained in it. In a world where many researchers try to get their names in as many publications as possible, Peter was a huge exception.