In the past, when a famous mathematician passes away, many community members feel that they should be remembered on MathOverflow in some way or another. For obvious reasons, such memorials need to be carefully designed to honor the life and work of the deceased as well as the purpose of MathOverflow. Often, individuals post their own memorials, which are sometimes well received by the community and sometimes not. There has never been a formal discussion of this topic. I thereby propose to open this discussion about what kind of memorial (if any) should the MathOverflow community do when a high-profile mathematician passes away.

Edit: a list of past examples is given in this answer: https://meta.mathoverflow.net/a/4713/14094

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    $\begingroup$ I thought the tribute to Conway was fitting and appropriate. Put the mathematics in MathOverflow proper, and the nonmathematics (personal anecdotes) in meta, with links between them. Although everybody should be honored in some way, I think recognizing an outstanding contributor such as Ron Graham this way can fall under the policy exceptions category for meta. Gerhard "His Numerous Accomplishments Were Many" Paseman, 2020.07.07. $\endgroup$ – Gerhard Paseman Jul 8 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ Two anecdotes. 1. Ron Graham is (I believe) the only person to give [the Gibbs Lecture][1] at the AMS annual meeting twice. The first time was at the New Orleans meeting in January, 2001. Then in 2015 the scheduled speaker was unable to give his talk, and rather than see the lecture cancelled, Graham stepped in at extremely short notice to give a talk. [1]: ams.org/meetings/lectures/meet-gibbs-lect $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jul 8 at 7:35
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    $\begingroup$ 2. At the AMS annual meeting in Atlanta in 1978, Graham was chairing a session in one room, during which he was scheduled to give a talk in the room next door. So he interrupted his talk to go introduce the next speaker in the other session, meanwhile leaving a problem on the overhead projector for people to work on while he was away. When he came back, he picked up where he had left off in his lecture. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jul 8 at 7:36
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    $\begingroup$ (1/2) I think that (if I'm right the blog is not active), a possibility is that a thread of Meta is created with the title In memoriam. I am not a professional mathematician, and I assume that my views/ideas maybe aren't acceptable for the community. This thread while it is legitimated by the copyright could include the material/sources in discussion about, mainly, the more important work of a mathematician in a concise and inspiring way (to young PhD students and other). Then the best/recent answers are added to the Newsletter of MathOverflow if it is possible (is a periodic publication). $\endgroup$ – user142929 Jul 8 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ (2/2) I think that there is more possibilities, I don't know if it is legitimate that this site MathOverflow (let's a member of the moderator team) create a channel in some platform of videos. Then a group of mathematicians that want to edit a video lecture notes inspired in the work of a mathematician that passed away, again if the sources and these activities are legitimate submit a message to the moderators with the goal to publish the video on the official channel of the moderators and publish the video in a suitable room In memoriam of the chat (if it is legitimate in this MathOverflow) $\endgroup$ – user142929 Jul 8 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ Just as a clarification of my last comment is that I believe that one can to create an official channel (if it is legitimate) in some videos platform in which one can to avoid unrelated comments (the option disable comments), and after add as an embedded video the file in the suitable room In memoriam where the comments can be moderated. Of course, feel free to remove my comments if aren't suitable in this thread of Meta MathOverflow. These and previous are just my ideas that I evoke, I add this last phrase as disclaimer since I don't know what can be a legitimate activity about this concern $\endgroup$ – user142929 Jul 8 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ The question to discuss how to deal with memorials is good but doesn't match the title... I'd feel uncomfortable to discuss it here. $\endgroup$ – YCor Jul 8 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ An MJD story: blog.plover.com/math/graham.html . $\endgroup$ – LSpice Jul 8 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ Memorials about deceased mathematicians is not a subject of or about mathematics. $\endgroup$ – dohmatob Jul 9 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ Lipton and Regan's blogpost rjlipton.wordpress.com/2020/07/10/ron-graham-1935-2020 has some personal memories of Ron Graham $\endgroup$ – kodlu Jul 10 at 23:33
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    $\begingroup$ I think the general question asked here should better be separated from the report of the passing away of a particular person. $\endgroup$ – Stefan Kohl Jul 11 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ I suggest creating a specific tag for these posts, e.g. memorial $\endgroup$ – polfosol Jul 12 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ @polfosol: A tag is a good idea. Over on Science Fiction & Fantasy meta SE, we call it scifi.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/in-memoriam . "obituary" is another name we could use for the tag. $\endgroup$ – Zsbán Ambrus Jul 17 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ Unless opposition I'll edit this question removing reference to a particular obituary (currently I'm uncomfortable with this question, while I think the discussion is necessary). $\endgroup$ – YCor Sep 11 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ The question initially mentioned the then very recent death of Ron Graham and asked "Ron Graham passed away on July 6, 2020. (...) What the community could do right now to remember Ron Graham and to commemorate his outstanding contributions to mathematics". Now there is a MO post about this mathoverflow.net/questions/365170/…. In case there is still a need to address this question in Meta I'd suggest to repost it separately. $\endgroup$ – YCor Sep 12 at 11:02

I am sorry to hear about Ron Graham. Best wishes to his friends and family.

The bulk of this answer will address the general question about if or how MO should memorialize mathematicians when they pass away. I believe that a community wiki question on MO about a person's mathematical achievements and/or legacy is, generally speaking, an appropriate and and actively positive use of the forum. My arguments, in no particular order:

Consistent with MO mission

Reviewing a successful mathematician's contributions is by definition research-focused, and it often gives an interesting glimpse into connections between the different ideas that the person worked on. The questions and answers should stay focused on mathematics as much as possible, but this hasn't been much of a problem in past examples.

MO is the best forum for this

It is normal for articles or blog posts to be published when a prominent mathematician passes away, and these are certainly valuable, but MO posts often attract a good diversity of perspectives on a body of work that is often not well replicated elsewhere. And MO answers are more likely than some other sources to get the mathematics right since there is no pressure to translate technical ideas into language suitable for a general audience. Sometimes mainstream press even links to these MO questions for this reason.

MO tributes stand a reasonable good of being tasteful

MO has policies against gossip, innuendo, rumors, and personal remarks, and these policies provide some assurance that memorial posts will not go astray. MO should of course heed the wishes of surviving friends and family one way or the other, but a priori I don't think that it is disrespectful or exploitative to acknowledge and celebrate someone's contributions on the internet. Caution should be exercised in cases where the mathematician had a rocky or controversial relationship with the mathematical community, but I think the risk is low in most cases.

The risks are low

So far as I am aware there is no explicit rule against these sorts of questions currently, so if there were a high risk that they would be abusive or disrespectful (or perceived as such) then we would probably know about it by now.

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I am not trying to advocate against these kind of questions, per se. But I thought it might be worth starting an answer where people voice their concerns about these questions. Feel free to edit this answer to include your own concerns. Here are some possible concerns with normalizing the practice of having memorial questions on MO that I can see:

  • A question along the lines of "what is interesting in the mathematics of [Mathematician X]/[subfield X]" would normally be considered borderline at best for MO. These kind of questions are often unfocused, are not about math research per se, and call for encyclopedic answers, which are generally discouraged. And the memorial questions I have seen are generally of this form.

[However, contra the last point, these kind of "math tea" discussions are often among the most highly upvoted things on MO: both the questions and answers.]

  • Every year, many great mathematicians sadly pass away. Thus if memorial questions become routine, there will inevitably be a continuous stream of these questions. So, even if you think a handful of borderline/"chatty" questions are ok for MO, you might be uncomfortable with increasing the volume to this degree.

  • I can envision problems with "where to draw the line" in terms of who "deserves" memorialization. On the one hand, it could be uncomfortable/awkward if a question is asked about someone for which there's little to say about their mathematics. On the other hand, if these kind of questions do become very routine, then it might be considered a slight to not have one asked about any given recently deceased mathematician.

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Here are some thoughts:

  1. I'm finding early questions after a death quite indecent. It several times came less than 48 hours after the death, several times apparently by somebody probably not knowing the person, giving to me the impression "I shot first". Those questions in several cases look to me overelaborate and artificial (for instance the "lesser known results about X" done for Bourgain, then Conway, then Jones), or the highly opinion-based "what did X like maths to be". In that case (Jones), the question was quickly closed, but this indecent bumping still existed, and this was 2-3-4 days after the death. So I'd appreciate a strict policy, particularly, say, within some period (2 weeks? 1 month?) following the death. This would require moderators agreement and involvement.

  2. I tend to find obituary notices on MO useful, even if they are not questions. One could imagine setting up guidelines about what makes an obituary notice acceptable (neutral tone, etc.), and how to deal with them (e.g., incentive to refrain posting answers/comments, except to provide further relevant information).

  3. I understand that the community appreciates questions about some recently passed away mathematician, after a reasonable amount of time. There could be a few guidelines about this. Notably the risk is that an awkwardly-posed such question (such as the one about Jones) deters from asking a good one (such as the ones about Nash, Conway, among others).

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    $\begingroup$ Agree that posting notice of death on the "news of potential interest" meta thread is very different, and useful for spreading this information to the broader math community. $\endgroup$ – Sam Hopkins Sep 23 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ I think the Bourgain question, which may have started the ball rolling, was somewat different from the other examples you mention. For instance, the time between announcement of his passing and the posting of the question was somewhat longer than in the other two cases; and there are aspects specific to the quantity and nature of his work that made such a question not merely idle+morbid curiosity $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Sep 23 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ @YemonChoi I don't think Bourgain's question was particularly the starting point. Actually the J. Gleason case was particularly problematic, precisely because asking about his legacy was blatantly irrelevant, while having to write down, even implicitly, such a judgement just a few days after his death was pretty uncomfortable (with an OP who was visibly affected by the event and reacted somewhat aggressively and with a lack of discernment). $\endgroup$ – YCor Sep 24 at 15:44

I'm a bit conflicted about the best way to handle these kind of things, but I thought it might be good to collect the existing MO "memorial" questions in a thread here on meta, in case some decision is reached (e.g., to give them all a certain tag). Here are some I've found:

Which of Quillen's Papers Should I read?

In memoriam Torsten Ekedahl [This one concerned an active MO user and so might be considered somewhat different.]

Wikipedia story about Bill Thurston's death

Grothendieck -sad news

John Nash's Mathematical Legacy

Maryam Mirzakhani's works [Whoops, this one was not actually asked after her death, only edited to reflect that.]

Vladimir Voevodsky's works

Mathematical work of Jonathan Gleason [this one, posted January 2018, is deleted; it actually concerned a graduate student, actually active here, who had no publication or preprint or at that time, and neither now as far as I [YCor] know. As the post is deleted I copy it here: I heard the sad news that Jonathan Gleason passed away this week at the age of 28. In the spirit of the post on Quillen, I want to ask what are the mathematical contributions of Jonathan Gleason. Somehow the Berkeley mathematical department did not even contact his family after mountains of teaching work he has done. But his work survives and I think it is time to us to have a better appreciation what he has achieved. After deletion OP complained in this MetaMO question, which was answered by a moderator.

Andrei Suslin's works

(On Meta: migrated here while initially posted on MO) Swinnerton-Dyer passed away?

Jean Bourgain's Relatively Lesser Known Significant Contributions

Hassan Akbar-Zadeh's mathematical legacy

Conway's lesser-known results

Ron L. Graham’s lesser known significant contributions

What do you like in the mathematics of Vaughan Jones?And how Vaughan Jones liked mathematics to be?

If you know of more examples, please add them here. I tried to put them in chronological order.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't recall a memorial post for Bill Thurston, who was an active MO participant. $\endgroup$ – Joseph O'Rourke Sep 10 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ @JosephO'Rourke: Thanks to your inquiry, I actually found an MO post about Bill Thurston's death (mathoverflow.net/questions/105220/…). I added this to the list. It's a little tricky to know exactly the right keywords to search to find these things. $\endgroup$ – Sam Hopkins Sep 10 at 15:00

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