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Paul Sally has passed away

The mathematical world and the University of Chicago lost one of its beloved and honored members on December 30, 2013. Paul Sally was a specialist in harmonic analysis on semi-simple groups and a renowned educator.

Paul received his Ph.D. in 1965 from Brandeis and then moved to the University of Chicago as an instructor. He quickly moved up the ranks on the basis of his excellent work on representation theory of p-adic groups, and was the chairman from 1977-1980. Since 1984, Paul was Director of Undergraduate Studies of the Mathematics department, where he has had enormous impact on the undergraduate program at the University of Chicago. Paul also had 19 Ph.D. students whose accomplishments gave him great satisfaction.

Paul’s seminal work with Joseph Shalika on \(\mathrm{SL}(2)\) in the late 1960s ushered in an era of rapid development in harmonic analysis on reductive p-adic groups, an area of mathematics that lies at the intersection of many mathematical fields including number theory, algebra, analysis, and geometry. Within this area, Paul’s research focused on questions surrounding the Plancherel formula, specifically the computation of the characters of irreducible representations and the explicit understanding of the Fourier transforms of orbital integrals. As a mentor and agitator in this and allied fields, his influence extended well beyond his own work.

Moreover, Paul’s influence on mathematics extended far beyond the research work that he and his collaborators and students produced. He was involved with the Chicago Public Schools starting in 1969, when he ran a math competition and conducted classes for students and teachers. From 1983 to 1987 he was the first director of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project (UCSMP). In 1992, Paul founded the Seminars for Elementary Specialists and Mathematics Educators (SESAME), a staff development program for elementary school teachers in Chicago public schools. Since the program’s inception, more than 600 teachers from 125 schools have participated in SESAME. In 1988, Paul, together with Diane Herrmann, began another enterprise, the University of Chicago Young Scholars Program for mathematically talented 7-12 grade students. The Mathematics department has recruited faculty from among the graduates of this program.

Paul also had a large role in the administration of the AMS (American Mathematical Society), having served in the Council and the Executive committee and as a trustee as well as several other committees over the years. He also was on the advisory committee for the mathematical sciences at the NSF. He served on two influential National Academy committees on mathematics education, and was recognized by numerous awards for his contributions to teaching: among his distinctions, Paul won the Quantrell Award for excellent undergraduate teaching at the University, and the Haimo award of the Mathematical Association of America. He was a fellow of the AMS.

Paul was a great believer in Mathematics and in the possibilities of people to achieve. He was an inspiration to many with his indomitable spirit. He constantly demanded from instructors and students complete devotion to Mathematics, and was remarkably successful in eliciting this: it is impossible to give a blind double amputee excuses for shirking. Paul held his views strongly, and was always willing to express and defend them. (He first came to prominence within the university community for opposing the harsh treatment of Vietnam War protesting students, thereby gaining a reputation as a radical.) He loved a good argument, but in the end, felt that the way to accomplish things was by doing, not by talking. Paul had indeed accomplished much, although he has left many unfinished plans - he was among those who believed that if you are working on project that can be completed in one lifetime, then you are thinking too small. We will miss him.

Paul is survived by his wife Judy, three sons David, Steven and Paul III, and their families.

There is a fascinating video interview with Paul in the Simons foundation’s Science Lives Project, which features in-depth interviews with "some giants of twentieth century mathematics and science.". Other recent interviews can be found at here, here and pp 6-7 of here.

Please see here for an obituary of Paul Sally by the University.