I was deeply saddened to learn that Elias Stein died yesterday, aged 87.

I have talked about some of Eli’s older mathematical work in these blog posts. He continued to be quite active mathematically in recent years, for instance finishing six papers (with various co-authors including Jean Bourgain, Mariusz Mirek, Błażej Wróbel, and Pavel Zorin-Kranich) in just this year alone. I last met him at Wrocław, Poland last September for a conference in his honour; he was in good health (and good spirits) then. Here is a picture of Eli together with several of his students (including myself) who were at that meeting (taken from the conference web site):

Eli was an amazingly effective advisor; throughout my graduate studies I think he never had fewer than five graduate students, and there was often a line outside his door when he was meeting with students such as myself. (The Mathematics Geneaology Project lists 52 students of Eli, but if anything this is an under-estimate.) My weekly meetings with Eli would tend to go something like this: I would report on all the many different things I had tried over the past week, without much success, to solve my current research problem; Eli would listen patiently to everything I said, concentrate for a moment, and then go over to his filing cabinet and fish out a preprint to hand to me, saying “I think the authors in this paper encountered similar problems and resolved it using Method X”. I would then go back to my office and read the preprint, and indeed they had faced something similar and I could often adapt the techniques there to resolve my immediate obstacles (only to encounter further ones for the next week, but that’s the way research tends to go, especially as a graduate student). Amongst other things, these meetings impressed upon me the value of mathematical experience, by being able to make more key progress on a problem in a handful of minutes than I was able to accomplish in a whole week. (There is a well known story about the famous engineer Charles Steinmetz fixing a broken piece of machinery by making a chalk mark; my meetings with Eli often had a similar feel to them.)

Eli’s lectures were always masterpieces of clarity. In one hour, he would set up a theorem, motivate it, explain the strategy, and execute it flawlessly; even after twenty years of teaching my own classes, I have yet to figure out his secret of somehow always being able to arrive at the natural finale of a mathematical presentation at the end of each hour without having to improvise at least a little bit halfway during the lecture. The clear and self-contained nature of his lectures (and his many books) were a large reason why I decided to specialise as a graduate student in harmonic analysis (though I would eventually return to other interests, such as analytic number theory, many years after my graduate studies).

Looking back at my time with Eli, I now realise that he was extraordinarily patient and understanding with the brash and naive teenager he had to meet with every week. A key turning point in my own career came after my oral qualifying exams, in which I very nearly failed due to my overconfidence and lack of preparation, particularly in my chosen specialty of harmonic analysis. After the exam, he sat down with me and told me, as gently and diplomatically as possible, that my performance was a disappointment, and that I seriously needed to solidify my mathematical knowledge. This turned out to be exactly what I needed to hear; I got motivated to actually work properly so as not to disappoint my advisor again.

So many of us in the field of harmonic analysis were connected to Eli in one way or another; the field always felt to me like a large extended family, with Eli as one of the patriarchs. He will be greatly missed.

[UPDATE: Here is Princeton’s obituary for Elias Stein.]

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