Ronald G. Douglas (1938-2018)

by Orr Shalit

A couple of weeks ago I learned from an American colleague that Ron Douglas passed away. This loss saddens me very much. Ron Douglas was a leader in the Operator Theory community, an inspiring mathematician, a person of the kind that they don’t make like any more.

The first time that I met him was in the summer of 2009, in a workshop on multivariable operator theory at the Fields Institute in Toronto. I walked up to him and asked him what he thought of some proposed proof of the invariant subspace problem (let’s say that I don’t remember exactly which one), and he didn’t even want to hear about it! At the time I was still rather fresh and didn’t understand why (I later learned that he has had his fair share of checking failed attempts). After this first encounter I thought for some time that he was a scary person, only to discover slowly through the years that he was actually a very very generous, gentle, and kind person. And he was very sharp, that was really scary.

The last time that I met him, it was the spring of 2014, and we were riding a train from Oberwolfach to Frankfurt. I think we were Douglas, Ken Davidson, Brett Wick and I. Davidson, Wick and I were going to Saarbrucken, and Douglas was supposed to be on another train, but he joined us because by that time he was half blind and thought that it was better to travel at least part of the way with friends. (The conductor found him out, but decided to let the old man be). At some point we had to switch trains and we left him and I was worried how can we leave a half blind man to travel alone (he made it home safely). On the train he talked about the corona theorem something, and I was sitting on the edge of my sit trying to keep up. I don’t remember what he said about the corona theorem, but I remember clearly that he told me that I shouldn’t have nausea because it is only psychological (you see, even very smart people occasionally say silly things). He also talked about black jack. That was the last time I saw him.

When I was a postdoc I became obsessed with the Arveson-Douglas conjecture, and I worked on this conjecture on and off for several years (see here, here, here and here for earlier posts of mine mentioning this conjecture). That’s one way I got to know some of Douglas’s later works. Douglas motivated many people to work on this problem, and was also responsible for some of the most recent breakthroughs. Just last semester, in our Operator Theory and Operator Algebras Seminar at the Technion, I gave a couple of lectures on two of his very last papers on this topic, which were written together with his PhD student Yi Wang: “Geometric Arveson-Douglas Conjecture and Holomorphic Extension” and “Geometric Arveson-Douglas Conjecture – Decomposition of Varieties“. These are very difficult papers, written with a rare combination of technical ability and vision.

By the way, I have heard wonderful things about Douglas as a mentor and PhD supervisor. In July 2013 I attended a conference in Shanghai in honour of Douglas’s 75th birthday. At the banquet many of his students and collaborators got up to say some words of thanks and to tell about nice memories. After several have already spoken, the master of ceremony walked up to me with his wireless microphone and announced: “and now, to close this evening, the last student, Piotr Nowak!” Perhaps this is a good place to point out that I was not Douglas’s student, nor is my name Piotr Nowak (I think Piotr Nowak also was not a student, but he was a postdoc or at least spent some time at Texas A&M). I took the mic in my hand, but didn’t have the guts to play along, and handed it over to Piotr.

(I wrote above that I was not a student of Douglas, but in some sense I am his mathematical step-grandchild. Douglas’s first PhD student was Paul Muhly, who is mathematically married to Baruch Solel, my PhD supervisor, hence is my mathematical step-father.)

Another completely different work of his that I had the pleasure of studying is his beautiful little textbook “Banach Algebra Techniques in Operator Theory“, which I read cover-to-cover with no particular purpose in mind, just for the joy of it.

I think that perhaps Douglas’s greatest contribution to mathematics is the Brown-Douglas-Fillmore (BDF) theory. The magic ingredient of using sophisticated algebraic and topological intuition and machinery appears in much of Douglas’s work, but in BDF it had wonderful consequences as well as incredible impact. If one wants to get an idea of what this theory is about (and what kind of problems in operator theory motivated it), perhaps the best person to explain is Douglas himself. To this end, I recommend reading the introduction to Douglas’s small book on the subject, “C*-Algebra Extensions and K-Homology” (Annals of Mathematics Studies Number 95).

[Update, March 17th: I later checked my records and realised that the way I remembered things is not the way they were! I am leaving the memory as I wrote it, but for the record, that train ride was not the last time that I saw Douglas, I suppose that it was simply the most memorable and symbolic goodbye. The last time I met Douglas was in Banff, in 2015. (In my memory, I mixed Oberwolfach 2014 with Banff 2015). If I am not mistaken, he was there with his wife Bunny, and we did not interact much. I met him four other times: in June 2010 at the University of Waterloo, when he received a honorary doctorate, later that summer in Banff, at IWOTA 2012 which took place at Sydney, and at IWOTA 2014, in Amsterdam (which was also after our goodbye on the train). ]