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Daniel Quillen

One of the greatest mathematicians I’ve had the privilege to know — Daniel Quillen — died ten days ago. He was on the faculty at MIT when I was a graduate student there, and did some of his most famous work at the time.

It’s a funny thing about mathematicians. If Quillen were a physicist, say, or a composer, or a writer, his death would have been the lead obituary of the day. Perhaps the NYT will eventually get around to taking note of his death. In the meantime, I’ll refer you to a blog post a week ago by Steve Landsburg, the economist, some-time mathematician, and popular economics writer, whom I happened to hang out with thirty years ago when we were both at the University of Chicago. Steve writes:

I met Quillen only once, and very briefly, but great mathematicians, like great poets, reveal so much of themselves in their work that one comes to feel a certain intimacy just by studying them. In that sense, Quillen was my close companion many a year.

Dan Quillen died this week at the age of 70, after a five year battle with Alzheimer’s. Scouring the web for obituaries and other recent mentions, I found very little besides a brief article from a Gainesville newspaper about an Alzheimer’s patient named Daniel Gray Quillen who had gone briefly missing in June, 2010. Followup stories identify the missing man as “a senior citizen with Alzheimer’s”.

“A senior citizen”?!?!?! Part of me wants to scream: “Dammit, this is no generic senior citizen! This is Daniel Fucking Quillen, Fields Medalist, Cole Prize Winner, architect of higher K-theory, conqueror of the Serre conjecture, and one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century!”

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