13 September 2021

Professor Victor Snaith, 1944-2021

Professor Victor Snaith, who held a professorship in the School of Mathematics and Statistics from 2004 until 2009, and an emeritus professorship until 2019, passed away peacefully in his sleep on 3 July 2021.

Professor Victor Snaith

Victor Snaith received his PhD in 1969 from the University of Warwick under the supervision of Luke Hodgkin. In an academic career spread evenly between Canada and the United Kingdom, Vic held academic positions at the University of Cambridge, University of Western Ontario, McMaster University and the University of Southampton, before joining the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sheffield in 2004 where he stayed until his retirement in 2009.

Vic was an elected fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1984 and was made a Fields Institute Fellow in 2002 for services to Canadian mathematics.

Professor Victor Snaith, March 1983
March 1983

A distinguished mathematician, Vic’s research interests included algebraic K-theory, algebraic topology, algebraic geometry, number theory and representation theory of groups. Amongst his many contributions, Vic pioneered, in a result known as explicit Brauer induction, the application of methods from stable homotopy theory to the representation theory of groups.

He will be greatly missed by his many friends, his family and by mathematicians worldwide.

Professor Victor Snaith with his son Dan, September 1984
Victor with his son Dan, September 1984.

The School of Mathematics and Statistics has also received the following tributes from those who knew Victor.

Jim Arthur, University of Toronto

I knew Victor from the time I returned to Canada in 1979. I had the pleasure of seeing him at many Canadian mathematical functions, even though we were at different universities, and were in somewhat different fields. I also corresponded with him more comprehensively in the last year. I was very sorry to hear of his death. However, Victor had prepared me for it. In fact he seemed to approach his death with a courageous mixture of determination and ironic, almost light-hearted, detachment. I shall miss him!

Emilio Lluis-Puebla, University of Mexico

I found that my thoughts about Vic ended always with my personal life and feelings, instead of him, and that would be of no interest to the persons that read them. So I decided not to write about those events.

Rather I decided to express in very concise sentences my admiration for him. He never told me he was ill. I knew this after his death. 

"I am very proud of your mathematical career. I have always admired your enormous talent to learn, memorise, manipulate, apply and conceive mathematics. I remember you wrote some books on literature and now you are also a top chess problem solver. Congratulations!" This I wrote to him in an email back in 2012.

When I was his PhD student I remember his mathematical writings on yellow paper blocks. He wrote very fast with so many brilliant ideas. I graduated in 1980 with him as my advisor. In 1985 I invited him to Mexico for a Seminar on Algebraic K-Theory together with other notable mathematicians. After a big dinner at my parents house, where the great Hassler Whitney was invited too, I returned him to his hotel and he told me that the calculations he was working on algebraic K-groups were perhaps the most difficult he had ever done in his life.

I think Vic was an extraordinary man and mathematician. His mathematics is brilliant and monumental. He will be remembered with affection and admiration from me and all the persons who met him.

Rick Jardine, University of Western Ontario

I first encountered Vic Snaith at an Algebraic Topology conference at the University of Waterloo in 1978, while I was still a student. He gave four lectures at that meeting, two introductory and the others more advanced, on different areas within the then nascent area of Algebraic K-theory. He was a master of the calculational approach to stable homotopy theory, and I recall being intimidated at that meeting by the aggressive energy of his approach.

Vic was always a calculator, always looking for new tools, and he had a very open mind. He was an early supporter of sheaf-theoretic homotopy theory and its relevance for Algebraic K-theory. He engineered a position for me at the University of Western Ontario in 1984 and we worked (and often played) together as members of the Topology group that he had built up at that university, until he moved to McMaster University in 1988 to take up a Britton Professorship.

We never lost touch. Vic was first a mentor, then a research colleague, sometimes a competitor, and always a fast friend. He had a breathtaking range of interests and depth of knowledge in Mathematics, Science and the Arts, along with a facility with the English language that could be quite spellbinding. He had an insatiable curiosity and boundless creative energy.

We met frequently, in various places including Sheffield, until our last visit in the summer of 2019. My wife Catharine often accompanied me on the later trips, and she became good friends with Vic's wife Carolyn. The two couples had multiple elegant dinners together at some of the better restaurants in Bristol. His easy, often ironic smile and his always interesting chatter would light up the evenings.

These are memories to treasure. Vic was a rare force of nature, and I do not expect to know anybody quite like him again.

John Coates, University of Cambridge

Text first produced for the London Mathematical Society Newsletter.

I first met Victor in the summer of 1975, when I returned to Cambridge from the United States. In particular, I took over from Victor his undergraduate teaching responsibilities at Emmanuel College, and I still remember the kindness and the care with which he explained to me all that had to be done. Victor then left himself for the United States to spend a year at Purdue University before moving permanently to Canada. He was a professor at the University of Western Ontario from 1976-1988, and then held the R. F. Britton chair at McMaster University from 1988-1998. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1984. I had the pleasure of visiting Victor at McMaster University on several occasions, and found a very stimulating mathematical environment there, with many visitors funded by his personal research grant. Up until his move to McMaster, he had worked mainly in algebraic topology, growing out of his 1969 Ph.D thesis under Luke Hodgkin at Warwick University. However, many of Victor’s visitors to McMaster were working in arithmetic geometry, and it was clear that Victor’s own research interests were also shifting in this direction, or rather to the interface between arithmetic geometry and algebraic topology.

In 1998, Victor surprised many of us by deciding to return to work in England. He was appointed to a chair at the University of Southampton in 1998, and in 2004 he moved to the University of Sheffield, working there until his retirement in 2009. He spent the Michaelmas Term 2002 as a Visiting Professorial Fellow at Emmanuel College, and I was struck in our many conversations by the broadness of his mathematical interests and work, not to mention his many other intellectual pursuits, which included chess and music. This became even clearer near the end of his life when, despite his health failing, he began doing innovative work on a circle of questions related to the Langlands Programme, which he published as a book entitled "Derived Langlands" in 2019. Altogether, he was a remarkable mathematician, with wide intellectual interests outside mathematics.

Victor is survived by his wife Carolyn, his daughters Nina, who is a Professor of Mathematical Physics at Bristol University, Anna, who is a Professor of English at King’s College London, and his son Daniel, who is now a composer and musician after first doing a Ph.D in Mathematics at Imperial College London.

Professor Victor Snaith, Summer 1988
Summer 1988.

All photos courtesy of Dr. Nina Snaith.