On Saturday, I was in Oxford for a memorial meeting for Peter Neumann, organised by Chris Hollings for the British Society for the History of Mathematics (of which Peter was a past president). It was a hybrid meeting, with half the attendees there in person, in a lovely little seminar room in the Queen’s College, and the others attending by Teams (with lousy sound) or YouTube (with a small delay, and no possibility to ask questions). Indeed, at one point, someone pressed the wrong button and the speaker’s recent words came booming out of the sound system.
It was an interesting and varied meeting. Three of the talks could be said to be specifically about Peter: Raymond Flood gave a tribute, Cheryl Praeger talked about his contributions to and influence on group theory, and Tony Mann spoke on working with Peter on matters related to William Burnside (including editing his collected works). I talked about Peter’s unpublished manuscript on primitive permutation groups of degree 3p written in 1969, which was the first thing (apart from Wielandt’s book) I read as his student in Oxford. (I hope to say more about this shortly.) Adrian Rice looked at Peter’s book reviews and compared them to those of Augustus De Morgan. Martin Bridson gave a short closing address.
Most of the other talks were on things that would have been interesting to Peter as a mathematician, historian, and person with wide interests: these included the evidence for ancient Egyptian mathematics, the challenges issued to John Wallis by Pierre de Fermat and their reception, the library of several thousand mathematics books collected by Charles Hutton and its eventual fate, Mary Somerville engaging with quaternions while in her 90s, a summary of algebra in the USA in the early 20th century, and how mathematics (specifically calculations related to the “problem of the points” discussed by Fermat and Pascal) influenced questions of contracts and inheritance in English and French law.
Perhaps the best line of the day, quoted by Adrian Rice, was a comment from Peter to someone who had sent him something to read, which went something like this: “Your second sentence is the longest I have read, except for some by Frobenius, who was always happy to leave the verbs until Volume 3.”
It was especially nice to see Sylvia there. She had been unsure of attending because of a contact with someone who tested positive for Covid; fortunately Sylvia herself was negative and so was able to come. We had some small business to talk about, but also the opportunity to chat.