Neil White: 1945 – 2014

Guest post by Gary Gordon

Those with memories of Neil White are invited to share them in the comments below.

Neil White passed away on Aug. 11, 2014. Neil was an inspiring teacher and one of the key contributors to the revitalization of matroid theory in the 1970’s and 80’s. He published on a variety of topics, but most of his work was characterized by the way it combined different areas of mathematics, especially combinatorial geometry and algebra. His co-authored book Oriented Matroids (with A. Bjorner, M. Las Vergnas, B. Sturmfels and G. Ziegler) from 1993, with a 2nd edition published in 1999, is the standard reference for this topic. His book Coxeter Matroids (co-authored with A. Borovik and I. Gelfand) and several papers he wrote on this topic are typical of his breadth: these objects draw on classical results in algebra, geometry and combinatorics.

Neil, a Michigan native, received his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University and his PhD from Harvard. Neil wrote his dissertation under the direction of G.-C. Rota in 1972. Neil’s doctoral thesis examined the bracket ring defined by a matroid, and this algebraic approach influenced much of his future work. Neil was one of several young PhDs in Cambridge in the early 1970’s, and this group (including Ken Baclawski, Tom Brylawski, Curtis Greene, Richard Stanley, Walter Whiteley, and Tom Zaslavsky, among others) contributed significantly to a resurgence of interest in matroids.

Neil is best remembered in the matroid community for editing the seminal series of books in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Mathematics series: Theory of Matroids (1986), Combinatorial Geometries (1987) and Matroid Applications (1992). The wide range of topics and clear organization is a testament to Neil’s vision. Neil also wrote three chapters for these volumes that remain essential references today.

In addition to his work as an editor and expositor, Neil made significant contributions to invariant theory, the combinatorics of bar-and-body frameworks and oriented matroids. MathSciNet lists nearly 600 citations for his 53 publications, and this list does not include citations to the Encyclopedia of Mathematics series he edited. Reading through his list of published work gives an indication of the depth and breadth of his contributions.

Neil spent his career at the University of Florida, retiring in 2008. He was a dedicated and very inspiring teacher, teaching combinatorics, algebra and a variety of other subjects to both undergraduates and graduates. His courses were challenging, but he gave students the tools to solve difficult problems. He was also in charge of the Putnam team preparation for a time. He was always an excellent problem solver, finishing in the top 20 nationally on the Putnam while he was an undergraduate.

From a personal standpoint, Neil was a good friend and a calm, positive presence. He was my teacher for some 10 courses from 1975 – 1977 at the University of Florida, and his approach to mathematics and problem solving had a strong influence on me. His teaching notes were exceptionally clear; I have used his notes on ordinary and exponential generating functions and the Mobius function in my own classes. I do not believe I would be a mathematician if it were not for Neil.

Neil had wide interests outside of mathematics. He was an early advocate of the analytic approach to baseball, and he played a version of simulation baseball for 30 years. He played bridge, read widely, and volunteered his time for local organizations. He also had a good sense of humor: after starting my first job in the 1980’s, he wrote to me, evidently at my request. The “letter” consisted on one word: “Regularly.”

Neil White was a first-rate mathematician, a clear expositor, an inspiring teacher and a genuinely decent and humane person. I will miss him.

Neil White’s obituary appears in The Gainesville Sun.

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