Random Posts

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Another Master Lost to Mathematics

A recent photo
     Robion Kirby (born February 25, 1938) was a Professor of Mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley who specialized in low-dimensional topology. He co-invented the Kirby–Siebenmann invariant …whatever that means. Along with his significant mathematical contributions, he is an influential figure in the field.
     Kirby received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1965 and soon became an assistant professor at UCLA. While there he developed his "torus trick" which enabled him to prove some of the most important problems in geometric topology. Consequently, in 1971, he was awarded the Oswald Veblen Prize in Geometry by the American Mathematical Society.
     In 1995 he became the first mathematician to receive the NAS Award for Scientific Reviewing from the National Academy of Sciences for his problem list in low-dimensional topology. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2001. In 2012 he became a fellow of the American Mathematical Society. Kirby is also the President of Mathematical Sciences Publishers, a small non-profit academic publishing house that focuses on mathematics and engineering journals.
     His parents were both educated with a bit of graduate school, but comparatively poor. His father was a quiet conscientious objector during World War II and hence lost a few jobs. Kirby's father became a teaching assistant in 1948 and during Kirby's childhood and teenage years he grew up in small towns in Washington and Idaho. Knowing arithmetic and how to read before he entered school meant that he was usually bored and spent his time reading or daydreaming in the back of the class.
     In high school, although he was quite good at mathematics, he was far from certain that it was the subject in which he should specialize and he was still undecided when, in 1954, he entered the University of Chicago. Mathematics was the subject he was best at, but still he had no special love for the subject and, seeing some friends enthused by their law courses, considered a law career. After some thought, he decided that he should stick with mathematics. During that time he tended not to listen to lectures and was interested in games: chess, poker, and a wide variety of small sports, but not team sports, where one spent too much time listening to a coach or standing in right field. In fact for his first years at the University of Chicago it was chess that was his main passion.
     The University of Chicago chess team won the US intercollegiate championship twice, and Kirby became ranked twenty-fifth in the country without too much effort but then began to lose interest and sometimes wondered if he could do anything else as well as chess.
     In 1958 he took a course in general topology which he really enjoyed and his interest in chess faded into the background. According to Kirby, he discovered that “mathematics was a better game than chess,” These days Kirby is nominally retired, although he still pursues an active research program and looks back on his long career with satisfaction.
     In the 1963 US Open held in Chicago, won by William Lombardy on tiebreaks over Robert Byrne and ahead of such players as Gligorich and Benko, Kirby tied for places 11 through 19 (9 pts out of 12) with a group that included GM’s Arthur Bisguier and Duncan Suttles. 
     Unfortunately, because he was “only” a journeyman master back in the days before the internet, I was unsuccessful I finding any games that he won but only a couple of lost games.  I remember seeing his name a lot in the list of top finishers in tournaments in the Chicago/Milwaukee area back in the 1960's. 
     In this game, played in the California State Championship of 1966-1967, Raymond Schutt played a hard hitting game against Kirby, the other mathematician in this event.  Their game was typical topical for the Paulsen variation of the Sicilian Defense in those days. Charles Henin came in first with 5 ½ - 2 ½ with Irving Rivise and Kirby finishing 5th – 6th with even scores.


  1. I didn't know Rob Kirby, but I do remember seeing him play chess around the U of C campus in the early 60's and in a few local tournaments. I know he was a highly respected master back when the master title was a rare achievement. I also attended the 1963 U.S. Open as a spectator. I was quite a thrill to see people like Gligoric, Benko, and Lombardy that I had only read about. Gligoric made a wonderful impression: handsome, dignified, and elegantly dressed. He seemed to embody European sophistication

  2. Those were the good old days were they not?