Colleagues and friends remember distinguished Vanderbilt mathematician Vaughan Jones

Jones, recipient of the 1990 Fields Medal as well as numerous other accolades, joined Vanderbilt’s faculty in 2011.

Professor Vaughan Jones

Sir Vaughan F. R. Jones, Stevenson Chair and distinguished professor of mathematics in Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science, received the Fields Medal in 1990. (Vanderbilt University/Joe Howell)

Thomas Hum, News Copy Editor

Sir Vaughan F. R. Jones, Stevenson Chair and distinguished professor of mathematics in Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science, passed away suddenly on Sept. 6 at the age of 67.

Jones is survived by his wife and three children. His wife, Dr. Martha Jones, is an economist and associate professor in Vanderbilt’s Department of Medicine, Health and Society.

Professor of Mathematics and Chair of the Mathematics Department Mike Neamtu spoke about Jones’s legacy at Vanderbilt.

“All of us in the Math Department have been very saddened by the tragic loss of our distinguished colleague Vaughan Jones,” Neamtu said. “He was a wonderful person and an incredibly talented mathematician, with many accomplishments and accolades. The hiring of Vaughan Jones in 2011 has significantly increased the reputation and visibility of the Math Department among our peers.”

One of the world’s leading mathematicians, Jones received the Fields Medal in 1990. Widely considered the “Nobel Prize of mathematics,” the Fields Medal is awarded every four years to mathematicians under 40 years of age by the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union (IMU). Jones was awarded the medal for his work in von Neumann algebras and his discovery of his eponymous Jones polynomial, which distinguishes different kinds of knots and links in three-dimensional space. 

Jones grew up in Auckland, New Zealand and earned a B.Sc. and a M.Sc. with first class honors from the University of Auckland. He received a scholarship from the Swiss government in 1974 to study physics in Geneva at the École de Physique, transferring a year and a half later to the École des Mathématiques where he earned his doctorate in mathematics in 1979. It was also in Geneva where Jones met his future wife, Martha Myers, an American Fulbright scholar, at a ski camp for foreign students.

Jones began his career in teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1980, where he taught for a year before joining the University of Pennsylvania’s faculty from 1981 to 1985. Jones eventually went on to earn full professorship at the University of California, Berkeley while participating in a special research year at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in Oakland, CA. In 2011, Chancellor Emeritus Nicholas S. Zeppos recruited Jones to Vanderbilt.

Professor of Mathematics and Director of the Center of Noncommutative Geometry & Operator Algebras Dietmar Bisch remembered Jones’s arrival at Vanderbilt.

“When an opportunity to bring Vaughan from Berkeley to Vanderbilt presented itself, I seized it and, in my function as department chair at the time, worked with then-chancellor Nick Zeppos to convince him to join us,” Bisch said.

Vaughan’s move to Vanderbilt in 2011 was a spectacular achievement from which everyone at Vanderbilt benefited. He taught courses at all levels, and our students enjoyed learning mathematics from one of the greatest mathematicians alive.”

— Dietmar Bisch

According to Bisch, he and Jones had been collaborating since the mid-1990s. At the time, Bisch was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley, where Jones served as his faculty advisor. The two would often jot their ideas down on napkins during their coffee shop conversations, and the hard work would always come later when they returned to the office, Bisch said.

“We discovered some fundamental mathematical structures in our joint work, now sometimes called the Bisch-Jones algebras, that play a fundamental role in our area of mathematics,” Bisch said. “Vaughan always worked on very exciting problems and collaborated with many students and postdoctoral fellows throughout his career. His discoveries were groundbreaking, and I will miss our mathematical discussions and having him around as a friend.”

Jones was also known for his informal attire. He famously wore the jersey of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team when delivering his Fields Medal lecture at the 1990 International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM), the largest conference for mathematics in the world.

Jones was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1990. Additionally, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993 and the National Academy of Sciences in 1999. Jones became vice president of the American Mathematical Society in 2004 and vice president of the International Mathematics Union in 2014.

Beyond all of his academic accomplishments, Jones was a cherished member of the Vanderbilt community, and his passing is a great loss to students and faculty alike.

“We were proud and honored to have him as a colleague and friend,” Neamtu said. “He was very generous, good-humored and always willing to offer a helping hand to our students and faculty. We will cherish his memory with great fondness and gratitude.”