Obituary: Distinguished Professor Robert Miura (1938-2018)
By Nassif Ghoussoub, Scientific Director, Banff International Research Station
I just got word that my friend and colleague, Robert Miura, passed away on November 25th. Robert was born in Selma, California, to an immigrant family from Japan. When he was three years old, he and his family were sent to a Relocation Center after the attack on Pearl Harbor ignited decades of anti-Japanese racism and led to the forced removal and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Upon their return to farming in California’s Central Valley, Robert and his family experienced racially-motivated violence as they struggled to reestablish their lives. This episode left an indelible mark on Robert’s life. We had lots to talk about.
You can look at his webpage to have a complete picture of his accomplishments, and he has many. In 2001, he left UBC for the New Jersey Institute of Technology and we had a farewell party for him. The words I said about him then are still appropriate to repeat now. Here they are:
June 2001, St John’s College
Robert was chair of the departmental committee on appointments that recruited me to UBC. I have been convinced ever since that Robert has extremely good taste.
You all know about the Miura transformation, about solitons, about the wonders of Korteweg-De Vries equations, about Robert’s pioneering work in mathematical biology before this field became so fashionable. Indeed, and just like Colin Clark and Don Ludwig before him, I consider Robert one of the great scientific leaders of this department, someone to admire and emulate, a true applied mathematician, someone who knew his mathematics before applying it, someone who fundamentally contributed to it while also learning and contributing to other sciences. I have personally always admired the courage, audacity and intellectual capacity of these 3 “autodidactes” who made an impact in so many different fields. With Robert’s departure, an important chapter of applied mathematics in our department has come to a close. A huge loss of inspiration for the next generations.
But I am here to talk about citizen Robert: the man, the friend and the colleague. You all know or heard about the supposedly epic battles of 20 years ago between pure and applied math in our department. I never bought it. You know why? Because the first act of genuine support and fair-play I received in this department back in 1980 was from Robert Miura. This is at a time when, I was a pure among the purest, but obviously not pure enough for our purists–and who is talking about mathematics.
Robert is generous: Many of you have enjoyed receiving prizes, awards, plenary lectureships and other forms of recognition. But as you know, behind every award – there is merit of course – but you also need a supporter, an advocate, a nominator: This selfless and committed friend who will write the letter of nomination, contact the referees, fill the forms…Not a trivial job and Robert paid his dues to promote so many in this department: young and old. I signed essentially every nomination letter Robert wrote. I also solicited his endorsement for each one I wrote and he always put in the effort to improve it.
Robert couldn’t tolerate unfairness: Right after he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, he plainly indicated that someone else (from Quebec) was more deserving than him and should have been there before him. The wrong was corrected soon after.
Robert is a perfectionist: He simply cannot tolerate avoidable mistakes. I have many stories to tell but my favourite is when I became Director of PIMS and I received this gentle and friendly e-mail telling me that from now on: “You cannot afford making spelling mistakes anymore and you should run all your e-mails through a spell checker.”
Robert is a great advocate for international collaboration, and a major scientific figure in the Pacific rim. I don’t know whether this is due to his basic generosity or to what he had to endure at a young age because of his ethnic background. But Robert has always been dedicated to promoting mathematical research in Asian countries. He has spearheaded the Canadian involvement in the recurring Pacific Rim Congresses and he is committed to come back here in 2004 to lead the next one happening at PIMS.
Robert has been involved in every major initiative of the mathematics department. The IAM of course but most of you may not have known his involvement in the trenches when PIMS was being built one brick at a time in midnight sessions in downtown Vancouver and elsewhere.
If you wanted a job well done and accomplished to perfection, you call on Robert. He simply never fails you. Who else to go to, when PIMS needed to show the capacity of its people to be in the big league and organize a flawless and successful thematic program in mathematical Biology. Who else to turn to in Canada, when we needed a national leader for the Math. Biology theme in the MITACS network and among all these national theme leaders, who do you think is the absolute scientifically best, the most conscientious, the most meticulous, the most caring, the most responsible and by far the most successful.
This is the very reason why I and my good friend Arvind Gupta think that PIMS and the MITACS network are the biggest losers from Robert’s early retirement and I know that we shall be scrambling to fill his gigantic shoes.
It is only appropriate to present Robert with this gift, oh so modest compared to his services for PIMS and MITACS.
Best of luck Robert, and Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.