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Distinguished Professor Emeritus Peter Hilton dies
November 10, 2010Tweet
Peter Hilton, 87, distinguished professor emeritus of mathematics, died Saturday, Nov. 6. Born in London, he was a first-year student at Oxford University when he was recruited at the age of 18 to work with Alan Turing to break German codes during World War II. He returned to Oxford after the war and earned his doctorate.
Hilton held academic positions at Cambridge and Manchester universities, and a chair at the University of Birmingham. He moved to the United States in 1962, taught at Cornell, the University of Washington and the Battelle Institute, and held the Louis D. Beaumont Chair at Case Western Reserve University before joining the faculty at Binghamton University in 1982.
Professor Shelemyahu Zacks was chair of Binghamton’s Department of Mathematical Sciences when Hilton was hired. Zacks had worked at Case Western Reserve during part of Hilton’s tenure there and was happy to attract him to Binghamton. “He was very helpful in building up the topology program here,” said Zacks. “He was a very generous and nice man; an excellent colleague and a very, very bright man who was always ready to help.”
Ross Geoghegan, professor of mathematical sciences, first met Hilton in 1968, when Geoghegan was a graduate student at Cornell and Hilton was his professor. They became close friends once Hilton arrived on campus. “He was a most collegial person,” said Geoghegan. “He was very charming and helpful and he worked with many graduate students and 24 PhD students.
“He was also very broad in his culture and knew all sorts of famous people,” Geoghegan said. “Yet Peter had almost an ethic that he never ever sent people away. If someone stopped by his office, no matter what he was doing, he would put it aside and say come in.”
Geoghegan related a story that Hilton told him about his first meeting with Turing. “There he was, only 18 and introduced to Alan Turing, a very established person at that time. Turing shook hands with him and said, ‘So, Peter, do you play chess?’ and Peter said, ‘Yes, I do.’” Turing said he had been wrestling with a chess problem, and the next day, Peter returned with the solution. “As a result,” Geoghegan said, “Peter gained the attention and respect of Turing.”
Geoghegan said that Hilton was very skilled with words and a good writer who would often lie awake at night constructing palindromes. One such palindrome – 51 letters long and created by Hilton in 1943 – was mentioned in a Feb. 1, 2002 USA Today article that referred to Hilton as “one of the most noted palindromists.”
Also called one of the most influential mathematicians of his generation, Hilton was recognized with a number of awards and honorary doctorates, as well as international conferences to mark his 60th and 70th birthdays, in 1983 and 1993. Geoghegan attended the 1993 conference. “When Peter stood up to reply to the speeches at the banquet, he thanked people and reminisced, and then he turned and particularly thanked me because he could truthfully say that his years at Binghamton were the happiest years of his professional life.”
Hilton’s career in mathematics took him from algebraic topology to homological algebra, back to geometry and on to mathematics education. He published hundreds of articles and many books on mathematics and mathematics education and his most recent book, Mathematical Vistas: From a Room with Many Windows (Undergraduate Texts in Mathematics), co-written by Derek Holton and Jean Pederson, was published just this year.
Hilton retired from Binghamton in 1995, but remained active with doctoral students and on campus, participating in activities including a Science Across the Curriculum project on Alan Turing. He gave his final lecture on campus in March 2009, speaking about his code-breaking days.
Hilton is survived by his wife, Margaret, two sons, a daughter-in-law, two grandsons, a great-granddaughter, one brother and a sister-in-law. A celebration of his life will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 183 Riverside Drive, Binghamton. Memorial contributions in Hilton’s name may be made to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, AL 36104. Expressions of sympathy for the family may be forwarded to http://www.demunnfh.com.