Professor of Mathematics
1954 – 2014
Robert F. Coleman died on the morning of March 24, 2014 in El Cerrito, CA of a sudden heart attack. He is survived by his wife Tessa, his sister Rosalind and brother Mark, his nephews Jeffrey and Elise, and his service dog Julep.
Robert was born on Nov. 22, 1954, in Glen Cove, NY. He earned a mathematics degree from Harvard University and subsequently completed Part III of the mathematical tripos at Cambridge, where he worked on research with John Coates. By the time he entered graduate school at Princeton, Robert had essentially already written his doctoral dissertation, but his formal thesis advisor was Kenkichi Iwasawa. His dissertation, entitled “Division Values in Local Fields”, is considered a landmark contribution to local class field theory. Robert was a Benjamin Peirce instructor at Harvard University from 1980 to 1983 and began teaching at UC Berkeley in 1983. He had 12 Ph.D. students while at Berkeley.
Robert worked primarily in number theory, with a special interest in p-adic analysis and its applications to arithmetic geometry. His fundamental contributions to mathematics include a theory of p-adic integration of one-forms analogous to the classical complex theory. In his 1985 Annals of Math paper "Torsion Points on Curves and p-adic Abelian Integrals", Robert wrote: “Rigid analysis was created to provide some coherence in an otherwise totally disconnected p-adic realm. Still, it is often left to Frobenius to quell the rebellious outer provinces.” Applications of Coleman integration include the celebrated “method of Coleman-Chabauty” for finding rational points on curves and a new proof of the Manin-Mumford conjecture, originally proved by Raynaud. Robert is also widely known for introducing p-adic Banach spaces into the study of modular forms and discovering important classicality criteria for overconvergent p-adic modular forms. With Barry Mazur, he introduced the “eigencurve” and established its fundamental properties. Robert also discovered and filled in a gap in Manin’s proof of the Mordell conjecture over function fields and, with Voloch, established some unchecked compatibilities in Dick Gross’s theory of companion forms. In addition, Robert made important contributions to stable models of modular curves, p-adic Hodge theory, and many other aspects of modern mathematical research.
Robert received numerous honors and recognition for his work, including an Intel Science Talent Search Award in 1972 and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1987. A conference on p-adic methods in number theory will take place in Berkeley in May 2015 in honor of Robert’s mathematical legacy.
Robert Coleman was an avid tennis player and world traveler when he was struck with a severe case of Multiple Sclerosis in 1985. According to his friend and collaborator Bill McCallum:
“[Robert] was on a visit to Japan and had a couple of strange incidents: being unable to hit the ball in tennis, stumbling on the stairs in the subway. The Japanese doctors didn’t know what was going on. When he got back to Berkeley he was diagnosed with MS. From that point he had a shockingly rapid descent that caught his doctors by surprise; for many patients MS is a long slow decline. He went from perfectly healthy to the verge of death within a matter of weeks. His decline was arrested by some experimental and aggressive chemotherapy treatment. After that he recovered slightly, to the point where he could come home and get around with the aid of a wheel chair. But he never bounced back the way MS patients sometimes do.”
Robert fought MS bravely and with a great sense of humor, and despite the severity of his illness he remained an active faculty member at UC Berkeley until his retirement in 2013. Those that knew him were consistently amazed by his optimism and by the way he continued to travel despite the challenges of his MS. His former Ph.D. student Harvey Stein called it “truly amazing” how happily Robert lived his life, carrying on “as if [his MS] wasn’t even relevant.” Kiran Kedlaya wrote that “[Robert’s] ingenuity, humility, generosity, wry humor, and courage in the face of adversity (Banff in a wheelchair? In the middle of a snowy winter?!) are models for us all.” His friend and colleague Jeremy Teitelbaum said:
“Of course Robert was brilliant, but what really impressed me about him was how relentless he was when it came to mathematics. He simply never gave up in the pursuit of an idea... When his MS had made his hands shake and his voice slur, he brought that same determination to bear. I watched him spend hours typing slides for his lectures so that he could keep teaching — things that should have taken an hour would take half a day, but he did not give up.”
Robert had a mischievous and impish sense of humor, and he surrounded himself with colorful and funny people. For many years Robert's closest companion was his guide dog Bishop, who would join Robert everywhere. Bishop eventually passed away and Robert found a new canine companion named Julep. (Memorial fund donations to "Paws With A Cause" can be made in honor of Robert’s special relationship with his service dogs.) His friend Marisa Castellano wrote:
“Robert purchased an off-road wheelchair from [my husband] John back in 1989, and we used to go mountain biking with Robert and Bas [Edixhoven] back in the day when we still lived in El Cerrito. John and I would take turns towing Robert up the hills using bungee cords attached to our bikes. Sometimes we would tandem tow. And then Robert would fly downhill. Robert may have seemed meek in some ways, but he was a thrill seeker on those downhills!”
Robert Coleman was a kind, brave, and brilliant man whose influence on mathematics and on his friends and loved ones will long outlive his fragile body. He focused on what is important in mathematics and in life—from beginning to end, and that is a trait to try to emulate. He had the imagination and originality (and the courage) to work on only crucial ideas, those that just verge on the possible; those that his energy and vision made possible. He was unafraid to dream the great dreams of his subject.