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Kevin Reilly

Professor Charles John Read

Charles Read, Professor of Pure Mathematics, died on 14 August 2015, aged 57.  After attending a conference on Banach algebras at the Fields Institute, Toronto, Canada, Charles travelled to Winnipeg for joint research with a colleague, Professor Fereidoun Ghahramani, and collapsed from a heart attack the next day whilst jogging.  The following obituary has been contributed by Emeritus Professor Garth Dales.

As always, Charles spoke in Toronto with compelling clarity and great lucidity of the problem that he was attacking; he offered just four hand-drawn slides and talked about them.  However, in one hour, the structure and solution of the question that he was addressing were revealed to a captivated audience, all impressed by the power of his analysis.

Charles was born in London on 16 February 1958.  His parents were missionaries; Charles’ father died when Charles was only 11 years old, and so Charles was brought up by his mother.  Charles had one younger sister, Mary, who now lives in Australia. 

Charles won a scholarship to the City of London School in 1968; at this school he was a prodigy, and also younger than other boys in the same class.  He then won a scholarship in mathematics to Trinity in October 1975.  Charles was awarded a 1st class degree in the Mathematics Tripos in 1978, and a Distinction in Part III in 1979; he then became a student of Béla Bollobás at Cambridge.  His thesis, under the innocent-sounding title, ‘Some problems in the geometry of Banach spaces’, was surely one of the most significant of our era, in that it contained an example of a bounded linear operator on a Banach space that had no non-trivial, closed, invariant subspace, so resolving one of the most famous open questions in our subject.

Clearly Béla was Charles’ mentor and the major mathematical influence in his life; he spent the year 1981-82 at Louisiana State University with Béla.

Charles declared himself to be a ‘spirit-filled, born-again Christian’, and religion was a dominant factor in his life; he spent many hours reading and studying the bible, although he had no affiliation with an institutional church.  He spent the year 1982-83 teaching in a Christian high school in Baton Rouge.

Charles was elected as a Teaching Fellow of Trinity College and a Royal Society Research Fellow from January 1985, and received tenure as a Teaching Fellow in 1988.  Whilst at Trinity, he was involved in teaching and inspiring some of the most talented young people in mathematics in our country; in particular, Charles devoted time to working with those who were training to be part of the UK Mathematical Olympiad team.  Trinity College seemed his natural milieu.

Charles was appointed as a Professor of Pure Mathematics at the University from October 2000.  Here he continued to work within functional analysis, specialising in the theory of operators on Banach spaces and Banach algebras.

Charles’ power as a mathematician was his concentration on specific open questions and his ability to think these through and produce outstanding solutions, often counter-examples.  It was not easy to guess which problems would attract his attention, but once he did become involved in a problem, his method of attack was that of ‘deep thought’.  Charles frequently came to a penetrating analysis that seemed to go beyond what anyone else had been able to achieve; he followed this through with great concentration, and on many occasions produced major examples of technical virtuosity that transformed the subject.  It is hard to see how he kept so many logical implications in his mind as he constructed his proofs; this clearly required intense concentration – and maybe this resulted in a certain absent-mindedness about more mundane aspects of daily life.  The fame of his striking contributions to our subject enhanced the reputation of mathematics at Leeds throughout the world.

In recent years Charles had strong collaborations with David Blecher in Texas and with Fereidoun Ghahramani in Winnipeg, and he visited North America most summers; these collaborations led to several deep papers.

Charles was a very active cave-diver, and even discovered a new cave, now the ‘Professor’s cave’.  He very much enjoyed pot-holing in Yorkshire and cave-diving in Florida as an adjunct to his research trips to America. Charles was also a very talented pianist.  At mathematical conferences he often would find a piano and regale those present with marvellous renditions of some of the great classics.

Charles remained single in his life; he is survived by his mother and sister, and her family.

The tragic death of Charles is a devastating blow to his family, colleagues and friends, and a major loss to our subject.

The funeral was held in Winnipeg on Thursday 3 September, and a memorial service was held in the Emmanuel Church, Leeds, on Sunday 6 September 2015.