Subject: [ALGTOP-L] Norman Levitt (1943-2009)


Date: Thu, 29 Oct 2009 07:53:06 +0000


The mathematician and science warrior Norman Levitt died on October 24 in New York.

Following graduation from Harvard in 1963 Norman was a graduate student at Princeton 1963-1967, then an instructor at NYU, 1967-69.
He moved to Rutgers in 1969, rising through the ranks: most recently, he was Emeritus Professor.

At Princeton Levitt was a graduate student of Bill Browder.  His doctoral thesis was on "The applications of engulfing".  (I once
saw this in a list of intriguing thesis titles compiled by a nonmathematician).  Browder had initiated the study of the relationship
between the homotopy theory of high-dimensional manifolds and spaces with Poincaré duality -- Levitt was an early champion of the
study of Poincaré duality spaces for their own sake.

Levitt's mathematical interests encompassed the structure theories of both manifolds and Poincaré duality spaces, immersions, fibre
bundles, combinatorial formulae for characteristic classes, and configuration spaces.  He had a total of 28 mathematical publications.

Beyond mathematics Levitt had a strong interest in politics. In the 1990's he was a leading player (on the side of science against all
comers) in the "Science wars" concerning politically misguided perceptions of science.  He was the inspiration behind the "Sokal
affair", and the coauthor with the biologist Paul Gross of the influential 1994 book "The Higher Superstition". One measure of Levitt's
impact are the over 60,000 Google hits for Norman Levitt on Google

Richard Dawkins paid Norman Levitt a warm tribute on his blog,4514,Norman-Levitt-1943-2009,Richard-Dawkins

including "I would suggest that the books he wrote and inspired are the best memorial to Norman Levitt. 
Read them and encourage others to do so."
Accordingly, I have posted a bibliography of Levitt's publications in both mathematics and science politics on my website

I would like to record my sadness at the passing of a valued friend and collaborator, and to express my sympathy with his family.

                                                                                                                                                  Andrew Ranicki (Edinburgh)

ALGTOP-L mailing list

Sylvain Cappell spoke at the memorial service in New York for Norman on 2nd November 2009, including the following message from me. A.R.

"I was shocked to hear of Norman's death last week. He is the first to go of my generation of topologists whom I knew well.
I got to know him when I was in Princeton in the late 1970's, and we collaborated on a paper. The non-mathematical highlight
of the paper was a memorable trip to New Hampshire in winter. It was rather cold. In the first act of La Boheme the poet
Rudolphe sacrificed his manuscript in the stove, to keep warm. Fortunately, I resisted the temptation to do likewise with the
draft of our paper! We stayed in touch after I moved to Edinburgh in 1982. In fact, he was one of my first mathematical visitors
here. I used to call on him whenever I was in New York, and in between we exchanged emails. In the last one he wrote with
evident great pride about Renee, Steve and Heather, and how well they were all doing. I am sure they are equally proud of Norman."

Wikipedia entry for Norman Levitt.