Edinburgh Mathematical Society: Death of A C Aitken

The following is an extract from the minutes of the second ordinary meeting of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society held on Friday 10 November 1967:

A C Aitken

Dr Schlapp addressed the Society:

Mr President, fellow members and friends - It would be unthinkable to start our meeting without some reference to Alec Aitken, by whose death last Friday we are, collectively and individually, so sadly diminished. This is not the occasion, nor would I be competent, to speak of his contribution to algebra, statistics and numerical analysis; of his place in the annals of our University as one of its most inspiring teachers, or of his services to our Society, going back to those heroic days when, an evening of research papers having been advertised, and none being forthcoming, he would sit down the week before and provide two or three original contributions currente calamo. Nor would I speak of his immense erudition over a wide field, or his gifts as a theoretician and practitioner in music and letters - the latter publicly recognised by his election to the Royal Society of Literature.

This evening I would rather recall Alec Aitken as a most vivid and lovable personality, and as the loyal and generous friend of so many in this room. The first thing to be said is that along with our sadness there is the sense of the immense privilege it has been to know him or be associated with him in any way. In spite of his transcendent endowments he was the must approachable of men, for he possessed simplicity of heart and true humility; and he had a directness of approach that owed something to the Antipodes, but with him could never descend to brashness.

He took great pride in his Scottish ancestry; he loved the Scottish countryside and its literary and historical associations and he knew intimately East Lothian, the Borders and Galloway, from long days spent walking on their hills and coasts, alone or with a favoured companion. On these walks he would converse with the country-folk he met - such was his wide humanity - without a hint of condescension. We remember too his boyish delight in athletic feats, including throwing the javelin, and projecting carefully selected stones to prodigious distances by a flick of the forearm and wrist.

His coruscating wit often left one panting far behind; but for all his lightness of heart there was constantly, just below the surface, his deep awareness of the tragedy inherent in the human situation. One gift he lacked, and with which we ordinary mortals are richly endowed - the gift of oblivion. Not all who marvelled at his breath-taking displays of memory in the field of numbers realised that the inability to forget past experience could at times become a well-nigh insupportable burden to his powerful and sensitive mind.

He sometimes spoke of his first afternoon in Edinburgh when 44 years ago, "a raw New Zealander", as he chose to describe himself , he was hospitably entertained by Sir Edmund Whittaker. I like to think of how that afternoon they made a pilgrimage to Greyfriars Churchyard, and standing together before the tomb of Colin Maclaurin they spelt out the eloquent inscription on the wall above it. Of course Alec Aitken was unique; but he might not be displeased if we apply to him the last injunction of that noble epitaph:

One thing more must be said. The terribly sad years of declining health that were his lot were illumined, for all who witnessed it, by the unswerving and heroic devotion of his wife Winifred, To her and to Margaret and George and their families we now offer our deepest sympathy.

(The company then stood for a moment of silence.)

JOC/EFR October 2016

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