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MAA Establishes a Prize to Honor David Robbins

By Joe Buhler, Ron Graham, and Ann Watkins


Photograph of David Robbins courtesy of Ken Robbins.


David P. Robbins had a long, varied, and productive career in mathematics. His many friends describe him as magnanimous, hard-working, unpretentious, brilliant, and possessed of a rare ability to explain his insights clearly. David died of cancer in September 2003 at the age of 61. To honor his memory, the family of David Robbins has given the Mathematical Association of America funds sufficient to support a prize honoring the author or authors of a paper reporting on novel research in algebra, combinatorics, or discrete mathematics. Papers will be judged on quality of research, clarity of exposition, and accessibility to undergraduates. The prize of $5000 will be awarded every third year. A parallel prize will be awarded by the American Mathematical Society, honoring the author or authors of a paper that is broadly accessible and provides a clear exposition of work with a significant experimental component.

David P. Robbins received a Ph.D. from MIT, and then taught for a total of 10 years at the Fieldston School in New York City, Phillips Exeter Academy, Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and Washington and Lee University in Virginia (1978-81). While at Phillips Exeter, he collaborated with Richard Brown, a colleague there, on a high school math text called Advanced Mathematics, an Introductory Course published in 1975 by Houghton Mifflin. The editorial adviser on the textbook was Andrew Gleason, who was David's adviser when he was an undergraduate math major at Harvard.

He then had a 24-year career on the research staff at the Institute for Defense Analyses - Center for Communications Research (IDA-CCR) in Princeton. He exhibited extraordinary creativity and brilliance in his classified work, while also finding time to make major contributions in combinatorics, notably to the proof of the MacDonald Conjecture and to the discovery of conjectural relationships between plane partitions and alternating sign matrices. For more information, see his 1991 paper in the Mathematical Intelligencer, “The story of 1, 2, 7, 42, 429, 7436, ...” or “How the Alternating Sign Matrix Conjecture Was Solved” by David Bressoud and James Propp in the June/July 1999 Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

David lived in Princeton, where he settled in about 1981, and served for a number of years as a member and then president of the Princeton school board.

Working on (and, especially, collaborating on) mathematics gave him enormous pleasure and fulfillment, and he had some 82 different coauthors. As reported in “Dying Mathematician Spends Last Days on Area of Polygon” in The Wall Street Journal on July 29, 2003: “He reacted to the news [of the cancer diagnosis] by considering his options: He could stick to his normal work routine at a government research institute. He could search desperately for a cure for his disease, even though his doctors told him the cancer is inoperable. He could go home and wait to die. Or he could finally get around to a math problem that has been bugging him for decades.” He chose the last option and his last mathematical efforts with his “pals” led to a generalization of Heron's formula, answering a question that had intrigued David since childhood.

The prizes established in David's memory will, we hope, keep his name alive in the mathematics community, and also help support the kind of writing he would enjoy.


News Date: 
Wednesday, April 27, 2005