In Memoriam: Harold Widom (1932–2021)

To: UC Santa Cruz Community

From: Anthony Tromba, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics

Harold Widom
Harold Widom

Harold Widom, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics, passed away on Wednesday, January 20. I first met Harold in 1962 while an undergraduate at Cornell. Already a full professor, he had a reputation as a brilliant lecturer, and he was the only professor I ever knew whose graduate student audiences could erupt mid-class in spontaneous applause. His John von Neumann-like mathematical quickness was legendary; he could answer your questions before you even finished the sentence.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, on September 23, 1932, Harold attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan together with two other famous 20th century mathematicians, Elias Stein of Princeton and Paul Cohen of Stanford, who would all ultimately specialize in the field of mathematical analysis. Elias was one year older than Harold, and Paul two years younger.

Paul, who would go on to win a Fields Medal in Mathematics in 1962 in recognition of his path-breaking solution of Hilbert’s first problem, was generously tutored by Harold for several years in high school. Reflecting on his life in a speech at Stanford in 2001, Paul thanked Harold for the profound influence he had on his early mathematical career.

Harold received his Ph.D. at age 23 from the University of Chicago. He arrived at Cornell in 1955 and came under the influence of Mark Kac, who persuaded him to begin a study of the asymptotic behavior of the spectra of operators, especially Toeplitz operators. But despite the presence of Kac and having a close brother, Benjamin, on the Cornell faculty in chemistry, the Ithaca winters began to wear on him.

So in 1968 he accepted an offer from UCSC to become a founding member of our department. In 1994, Harold jumped at the opportunity for early retirement so he could focus his life on research. In the fall of 1991, his first UCSC Ph.D. student, Estelle Basor, now deputy director of the American Institute of Mathematics, had introduced Harold to the UC Davis mathematical physicist Craig Tracy, and they began working together. Upon retirement, Harold was able to focus on this collaboration and the rest is history. Their joint and seminal work on random matrices and their historic discovery of the Tracy-Widom distribution brought them both enormous fame and wide international recognition. In 2002 they won the George Polya Prize, in 2006 the Norbert Wiener Prize, and in 2020 the American Mathematical Society’s Steele Prize for Seminal Research. In 2006 Harold was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Harold Widom was a brilliant mathematician and a truly wonderful person. It was one of my life’s great blessings to have had him as an inspiring teacher, a colleague for over 50 years, and as a close friend. His profound mathematical discoveries place him among the giants of the University of California.

Harold is survived by his wife Linda Larkin; former wife Lois Widom; brother Benjamin Widom; daughter Dr. Barbara Widom, an endocrinologist in Fort Collins, Colorado; daughter Jennifer Widom, Frederick Emmons Terman Dean of Engineering at Stanford University; son Steven Widom, a software engineer; and four grandchildren.