Eulogy for Robert (Bob) Gordon July 1,2001
I first met Bob in 1973 at an AMS meeting when we were considering him for a position at Temple. His talk in abstract algebra was not my kind of mathematics, but I could check out his style and delivery. We were fortunate to hire him and I was particularly pleased to have him as a colleague and friend, although I doubted we'd ever have much in common mathematically. As the years went by, Bob became more categorical, especially through his work with Ed Green, so there was a glimmer of hope.
Bob and Muriel moved here to the farm, which meant a great deal to Bob. I remember in particular his pleasure when he rebuilt the old barn to a modern design. One of his collaborators, John Power of Edinburgh, regrets being unable to be here today, but writes about visiting Bob at Temple: `He (Bob) sometimes drove me from Temple to his home, and it was amazing to see the transformation in him as he approached his home; it seemed that the weight of the world slipped off him.' Another time, Power was staying here at the farm in July when a truckload of wood for his stove for the coming winter was delivered. It soon became clear that John would get no concentration on mathematics from Bob until the wood had been stacked. Several days later, the wood was stacked, Bob was happy and raring to go on mathematics, and John had heat exhaustion.
As for myself, at a party here at the farm. I happened to wander into Bob's office and noticed a paper he was working on with some big complicated diagrams. One in particular caught my eye ... staring at it further and discussing it with Bob, I realized essentially the same diagram appeared in my own earlier work. Contact at last! By then I had moved to North Carolina but returned to Pennsylvania in the summers. For a couple of summers, Bob and I would meet at Temple?s Ambler campus weekly and try to share our points of view. We had an empty classroom with plenty of blackboards and would take turns jumping up or pacing back and forth to work out some point. One time we were stumped enough that we both sat still for a while ... the lights went out! We discovered Temple saved on electricity by using a motion detector to turn lights on and off. We had to keep moving! That diagrammatic work of Bob's was involved in his collaboration with Power and Ross Street of Sydney. Street writes: they started what turned out to be a huge project which would never have reached completion without Bob?s original contribution, attention to detail, and organization of the typing. Their joint Memoir on tri-categories has received a lot of attention. I dabble in mathematical physics and was very happy when I discovered and let Bob know that the memoir was being quoted in math physics papers.
Word of Bob's death has gone out worldwide through the category theory mailing list. Expressions of appreciation of Bob have come in, even from some who knew Bob only through his work or third parties. The most moving of course are from those who knew him as more than a mathematician, who knew him as a fine human being. We will miss him.