Celebratio Mathematica

Shiing-Shen Chern

Shiing-Shen Chern: A towering figure

Robert Bryant

One of the found­a­tion­al lead­ers of the 20th cen­tury math­em­at­ics, Pro­fess­or Chern pub­lished over a span of six dec­ades. He de­voted his life to math­em­at­ics, both in act­ive re­search and edu­ca­tion, a call­ing that in­spired gen­er­a­tions of stu­dents he nur­tured and cul­min­ated in a geni­us for gal­van­iz­ing the sup­port to found math in­sti­tutes, in the United States and his home­land, China — MSRI and CIM, re­spect­ively.

Fol­low­ing a clas­sic­al Chinese up­bring­ing, Chern pur­sued math­em­at­ic­al stud­ies in Ham­burg and the Sor­bonne in Par­is, ob­tain­ing his doc­tor­ate from Ham­burg in 1936. He be­came known for build­ing on the work of Élie Cartan, the lead­ing dif­fer­en­tial geo­met­er of the early dec­ades of the 20th cen­tury. Chern ac­cep­ted a po­s­i­tion as pro­fess­or of math­em­at­ics at Tsinghua Uni­versity in 1937; however, he nev­er reached Beijing, as the Sino-Ja­pan­ese war broke out and di­ver­ted him to a tem­por­ary uni­versity in Chang­sha and then Kun­ming un­til 1943, when he left to work at the In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Study (IAS) in Prin­ceton, N.J. He re­turned again in 1945 to China, where he set about cre­at­ing a math­em­at­ics in­sti­tute for the Aca­demia Sin­ica, first in Shang­hai and then in Nank­ing. As the Chinese civil war ap­proached Nank­ing, his friends ar­ranged for the IAS to of­fer him a second po­s­i­tion that brought him back to the United States. Dur­ing and after World War II, he traveled between the IAS and China un­til he se­cured an ap­point­ment at the Uni­versity of Chica­go fol­low­ing the Com­mun­ist takeover of China in 1949. In 1960, he ac­cep­ted an ap­point­ment at U.C. Berke­ley, where he cre­ated a cen­ter of geo­metry, and, in 1981, co-foun­ded the Math­em­at­ic­al Sci­ences Re­search In­sti­tute (jointly with Calv­in Moore and Is­ad­ore Sing­er) and served as its dir­ec­tion (1981–84).

Dur­ing the 1980s, Chern’s world-renowned stature in math­em­at­ics earned the re­spect of the Chinese lead­ers who came to power fol­low­ing Mao Zedong, par­tic­u­larly Deng Xiaop­ing and Ji­ang Zemin. With their full sup­port, Chern was able to re­vive re­search math­em­at­ics in China, pro­du­cing a new gen­er­a­tion of tal­en­ted Chinese math­em­aticians. Sev­er­al ma­jor fig­ures in Chinese math­em­at­ics con­sider Chern to be the ment­or who helped them study in West­ern coun­tries fol­low­ing the thaw­ing of the Cul­tur­al Re­volu­tion, which had closed Chinese uni­versit­ies and sup­pressed aca­dem­ic pur­suits. In­deed, math­em­aticians throughout present-day China have all been be­ne­fi­ciar­ies of Chern’s in­flu­ence, vis­ion and foresight. By the 1980s, Chern had be­come a celebrity in China; every school child knew his name, and TV cam­er­as fol­lowed him when he ven­tured forth from the In­sti­tute in Tianjin. In 1986, with the back­ing of the Chinese gov­ern­ment, he cre­ated the Nankai In­sti­tute of Math­em­at­ics at Nankai Uni­versity. Today it is called the Chern In­sti­tute of Math­em­at­ics.

Though Chern moved from Berke­ley back to China per­man­ently in 1999, he re­mained a strong sup­port­er of MSRI. His ma­jor gift sparked MSRI’s suc­cess­ful cam­paign to ex­pand its build­ing, which was named Shi­ing-Shen Chern Hall in his hon­or. When Chern was awar­ded the pres­ti­gi­ous Shaw Prize for Math­em­at­ics in 2004, from the \$1 mil­lion pro­ceeds he gave an­oth­er large gift to MSRI. Shortly be­fore Pro­fess­or Chern died in Tianjin, he lived to see his leg­acy blaze yet an­oth­er trail when the In­ter­na­tion­al As­tro­nom­ic­al Uni­on named an as­ter­oid after him.