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Jonathan Michael (Jon) Borwein (1951–2016)

by Brailey Sims, Judith Borwein and Naomi Borwein

Jon Borwein, New Years Eve, 2011

Jon Borwein, New Years Eve, 2011

photo courtesy of Brailey Sims

Jonathan Michael Borwein, preeminent mathematician and polymath, was born on 20 May 1951 in St Andrews, Scotland, had chairs of mathematics at Dalhousie and Simon Fraser Universities in Canada and moved to the University of Newcastle, Australia, in 2008 as professor of mathematics.   His passing on 2 August 2016 sent shockwaves of sorrow throughout the mathematical world. He was a true polymath whose mathematics and infectious enthusiasm for it changed the way innumerable people think and feel about mathematics.

Jonathan’s paternal grandparents had taken the family from Lithuania to South Africa where in 1944 his father David graduated with degrees in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics from the University of Witwatersrand. In 1948, David and his wife Bessie (née Flax), a noted anatomist and biomedical scientist, moved to the United Kingdom where in 1950 he was awarded a PhD from the University of London and secured a lectureship at St Andrews. The year 1963 saw the Borwein family, including Jon and his two siblings, Peter and Sarah, moving to Canada, where David Borwein became Head of Mathematics at the University of Western Ontario (now Western University). It was there in 1970 that Jonathan met his partner for life, Judith Borwein (née Roots).

In 1971 Jonathan completed a BA (Honours Mathematics) and from 1971 to 1974 he was an Ontario Rhodes Scholar at Jesus College, Oxford, graduating with an MSc in 1972 and a DPhil in 1974. His first academic appointment was as a Post Doctoral Fellow at Dalhousie University. He remained there as an Associate Professor and then Full Professor until 1991. On leave in 1980–1981, he spent two years as an Associate Professor at Carnegie-Mellon University. From 1991–1993, Jon was Professor in the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization at the University of Waterloo. The period 1993 to 2004 saw him occupying various positions including the Shrum Professorship and a Canada Research Chair at Simon Fraser University where he was founding Director of the Centre for Experimental and Constructive Mathematics. In 2004 Jon returned to Dalhousie to take up a Canada Research Chair in Collaborative Technology. His final move was to the University of Newcastle (UoN) in 2008, where he was appointed as Laureate Professor of Mathematics in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

Jon had already enjoyed a long association with Australian mathematics and mathematicians, visiting the country some nine times in the two decades prior to his taking up the chair in Newcastle. As a result, Jon was well known throughout Australia for his participation in a variety of workshops and conferences; and he became a much sought after colloquium speaker. In 2008 Jon and Judi together with two of his daughters, Naomi and Tova, and grandson Jakob moved to Australia to take up his Laureate Professorship at UoN.

Immediately after his arrival Jon embarked on a campaign to enhance mathematics at Newcastle. He proceeded to attract a number of high-profile mathematicians and outstanding early career researchers to the faculty. These efforts, combined with his own prodigious output, soon resulted in UoN being recognised as one of Australia’s mathematical ‘hotspots’. Shortly after his arrival, he founded and directed (2010 to 2016) the ongoing University of Newcastle Priority Research Centre for Computer-Assisted Research Mathematics and its Applications (CARMA). Under Jon’s stewardship CARMA promoted, among other things, research and research training through supporting a regular stream of visiting scholars, seminars and colloquia, and hosting an average of seven conferences and workshops each year. During the eight years of his Newcastle tenure Jon contributed greatly to the wellbeing of the mathematical sciences in Australia. In 2010 and 2012 he was a panel member for the Excellence in Research for Australia review. He sat on the Council of the Australian Mathematical Society (2009–2016). He served on the Executive of Australia and New Zealand Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ANZIAM) and chaired the Scientific Advisory Board of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) (2010–2016). From 2010 to 2016 Jon co-edited with George Willis the Journal of the Australian Mathematical Society. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences in 2010 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of NSW in 2015.

Jon’s mathematical interests embraced a staggeringly diverse range of topics: pure and applied analysis (especially convex, and more generally nonlinear, analysis), optimisation, special functions and analytic number theory, numerical and computational mathematics, and high-performance computing, all bound together by the unifying methodology of experimental mathematics for which he was a powerful pioneer. Practising mathematics as one would an experimental and inductive science with the computer as the principal laboratory tool of investigation became a way of life for Jon. And, much like Leeuwenhoek’s microscope, it guided him to numerous unexpected insights and discoveries. Jon’s special function work surrounding π, initially undertaken together with his brother Peter and Simon Plouffe, has spanned more than three decades and earned him the nickname of ‘Dr Pi’. Over his career Jon has been an author of over fifteen books, and contributed almost double that number of book chapters. Starting in 1976 with a paper entitled ‘Tangent cones and convexity’ (in the Canadian Mathematical Bulletin) he has over 380 refereed papers, most in leading journals, and in excess of 100 contributions to conference proceedings. Much of his work has had, and continues to have, a major impact, with his publications attracting some 6,000 citations. Jon was generous with his ideas, enjoying sharing them almost as much as having them. This coupled with his enthusiasm made him a natural collaborator with over 150 co-authors. Combined with the breadth of his mathematics, this ensured that his investigations often crossed boundaries and made him an almost accidental catalyst for interdisciplinary research, so prized in the modern university.

An energetic promoter of all things mathematical, Jon was an inspiring teacher, supervisor and colleague. His talks, while bursting with information, were also always an enthralling performance. He committed himself to the advancement of the mathematics profession through various leadership roles, and his editorial and committee work. He was President of the Canadian Mathematical Society (2000–2002), a member of the Board of Governors of the Mathematical Association of America (2004–2007), and a member of numerous granting bodies and advisory boards from international organisations, like NATO, to regional ones. He directed or supported some 40 post-doctoral fellows and associates and has been the principal supervisor for nearly 30 PhD students.

The multitalented Jon could have been many things. His early inclination was toward studying history and he retained a passion and deep-seated curiosity for history (both human and natural), the arts, the organic world around him, and much, much more. Extensively read, it was rare to stumble upon a literary work that Jon had not also delved into. When the occasion was right, he would recite lengthy tracts of poetry (and the occasional bawdy limerick). He compiled an extensive file of quotations that he liberally peppered throughout his talks and writings.

Excursions into the countryside often including long walks (but rarely without an accompanying laptop or iPad—in earlier times, notebook) provided a weekly source of relaxation for Jon and family. These frequently also included one or more of the numerous mathematical visitors who gravitated to him. For many years his other source of ‘relaxation’ and daily exercise was to swim laps of an Olympic sized pool for 45 minutes or more during his lunch ‘break’, often emerging from the water with a problem solved. As so many can attest, an evening spent with the Borweins was always a memorable occasion filled with probing discussions of current scientific and world events, often illuminated with astute political analyses (Jon was an engaged and active ‘small l’ liberal), lightened by musings on the latest happenings in the world of sport (especially cricket and tennis—Jon’s favourites), all accompanied by an eclectic selection of music and the shared enjoyment of good food, wine and whisky. He sparkled with a wry sense of humour. He was proud of his Jewish heritage, though perhaps the closest he came to a religion was as a Pastafarian and ordained minister in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster—of which he often boasted.

Jon Borwein passed away suddenly of a coronary embolism, while on a short visit to London (Ontario) to see his parents and address his alma mater. He is survived by his parents David and Bessie, his siblings Peter and Sarah, wife Judith (Judi), three exceptional daughters Rachel, Naomi and Tova, and five grandchildren whom he adored, Jakob, Noah, Sky, Zoe and Taj.

* Adapted from an obituary by the same authors, The Australian Mathematical Society Gazette, 44 (5) (2017), 289—293.

Original Publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Brailey Sims, Judith Borwein and Naomi Borwein, 'Borwein, Jonathan Michael (Jon) (1951–2016)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Jon Borwein, New Years Eve, 2011

Jon Borwein, New Years Eve, 2011

photo courtesy of Brailey Sims

Life Summary [details]


20 May, 1951
St Andrews, Fife, Scotland


2 August, 2016 (aged 65)
London, Ontario, Canada

Cause of Death

heart disease

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