Gian-Carlo Rota

by David Sharp

May 8, 1999

Gian-Carlo could have been the inspiration for the expression ``a thousand points of light'', all by himself.

Like a gem with many facets, he sparkled no matter how you looked at him.

The first thing you noticed about Gian-Carlo was his love for the life of the mind. He lived and breathed mathematics and philosophy. He had a passion for ideas, an uncompromising dedication to the truth, and a boundless curiosity.

These qualities led to Gian-Carlo's profound contributions to mathematics and philosophy; especially to the branch of mathematics called combinatorics and to the branch of philosophy called phenomenology.

One of the really remarkable things about Gian-Carlo's commitment to math and philosophy was that he knew how to hand it on to others. In this way he inspired many students and colleagues to do some of their best work.

This is part of the rich intellectual legacy that Gian-Carlo has left us.

Important as this legacy is to the world of science, it is the human side of Gian-Carlo that has brought us here today, just as it brought so many together in Cambridge last week.

Each of us will have our own favorite memories.

For example there was Gian-Carlo's sense of fun, that brought a light touch to much of what he did, balancing a strong underlying sense of purpose.

Along these lines, I remember one time when Gloria, with our good health in mind, served us all de-caffeinated coffee after dinner. Gian-Carlo's immediate response was to pass a box of caffeine tablets around the table.

But the thing about Gian-Carlo that made the deepest impression on me was that he always found time for other people.

Life provides lots of excuses for not doing this. But every time I looked, Gian-Carlo was busy doing something for somebody else.

When Gloria and I got married, Gian-Carlo was the best man. He helped me with my own work in numerous ways, as he did so many who are here today. Doing all this couldn't always have been easy.

It was this extraordinary generosity of spirit that, for many of us, turned admiration for Gian-Carlo into deep affection.

Gian-Carlo was a wonderful friend; one of the special friends I counted on to share my elder years.

I shall certainly miss him.