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 Isadore Singer) and served as its direction (1981–84)., 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 and
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.