David Broomhead (1950-2014)

DavidBroomheadI first met David in 1999. There were moves afoot to have “something like the Sante Fe Institute” here in the UK — the notion had come from a Unilever bigwig. Warwick’s Ian Stewart told me David was the man to talk to. A brilliant mathematician, he said, and an applied mathematician.

So up I trotted to Manchester to meet this warm, witty man who offered me a wide variety of teas, batting not an eyelid at my preference for builder’s.

I instantly loved him. His all-encompassing mind, his generosity of spirit, that sudden smile which started in his eyes when something amused him, the spread of papers across his room, his knowledge of Japanese pickles, his never-failing welcome to me — a lippy non-mathematician with crazy ideas about the importance of the practice of maths to society — and the immense professional respect other mathematicians had for him.

“Something like the Sante Fe Institute” morphed into a proposal for an Alan Turing Institute which, alas, crashed against the union of Manchester University with UMIST; David’s Prof-ship was with the latter at that time.

It had been David’s brilliantly simple idea to take Alan Turing’s name; the choice of the name for the Turing Building years later was perhaps pre-determined at that moment.

To my outsider mind, David made two major differences to the world of mathematicians. First, the joining of the two maths departments became a celebration, and that’s a remarkable thing down largely to David and Paul Glendinning, his counterpart at Manchester Uni. Secondly, the ATI, despite our persistent efforts never took off as an entity (although there is a plaque about it somewhere in the Turing Building), a successful application for big funding, now CICADA, did happen — and look at the results. Under David’s leadership of CICADA, Manchester is now a thriving community of lively mathematicians working alongside computer scientists and engineers, all doing excellent stuff.

I have many lovely memories of David. This one in particular sticks in my mind.

It was a Friday night and we were travelling back home together by train from Manchester, me getting off at New Street, David going on to Malvern. It was shortly after the Boxing Day tsunami. He had drafted an editorial for Mathematics Today about it, and wanted my take, a layperson’s take, on whether he’d got the tone of it right. Talking of how mathematicians can predict the size, timing and direction of a tsunami is one thing, doing so in a way that doesn’t upset people who’ve lost relatives is quite another.

At the beginning of our conversation, I had no idea of the part maths could play. Using that visual aid so beloved of mathematicians, a paper napkin, he quickly gave me one of the most lucidly brilliant lessons I’ve ever experienced. I then read his draft.

Had he written his editorial with the right touch? Were his words crafted with appropriate sensitivity? Of course they were.



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