Who was Robin Gandy, after whom a pair of accommodation blocks in Wolfson College is named? Daniel Isaacson gives a sketch of his life and career, and his connection with the College.
Life and career
Robin Gandy was an internationally renowned mathematical logician. He was born in Oxfordshire on 22 September 1919, and in 1938 went up to King’s College, Cambridge, as an Exhibitioner in Mathematics. While an undergraduate, Robin was active as a member of the Communist Party, a political commitment to what he then saw as the only means of solving the appalling conditions of unemployment in Britain and other countries, and of standing up to the threat of Nazism and Fascism. After the war, Robin rejected the Communism of his youth, but not the idealism. He was also a member of The Apostles. He took two years of the Tripos before joining the Army in 1940. With his mathematical background, he was posted to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, at Hanslope Park, where he worked with Alan Turing, who was building a speech enciphering device (the code name for this project, at Robin’s suggestion, was Delilah, a “deceiver of men”). After the war, Robin returned to King’s College, where he took Part III of the Mathematical Tripos, with Distinction, and carried on to a Ph.D., with Alan Turing supervising his thesis, On axiomatic systems in mathematics and theories in physics, submitted in September 1952. This was one of only two PhD theses that Alan Turing supervised.
Turing and Gandy became good friends, and remained so until Turing’s death in 1954. In his will, Turing bequeathed all his books and papers to Robin. Max Newman, who had recruited Turing to Manchester, gave Robin responsibility for editing Turing’s papers, both published and unpublished, for a Collected Works. This project weighed heavily with Robin, and after long years, three volumes were published by other editors. When he died, Robin was still working, with the help of a former student, on the fourth and final volume, Mathematical Logic, which was published in December 2001.
While writing his PhD thesis. Robin was appointed assistant lecturer in applied mathematics at Leicester University, and then promoted to lecturer. In 1956 he published “On the Axiom of Extensionality—Part I”, his first published work in mathematical logic (Part II appeared in 1959). Earlier publications had been in applied mathematics, from his wartime work in electrical engineering. In 1956 Robin became a lecturer in applied mathematics at the University of Leeds, though his research had continued steadily in mathematical logic, and in 1961 he was recruited to Manchester University by Max Newman as Senior Lecturer in Mathematical Logic, and soon promoted to Reader and then Professor. Robin spent the academic year 1966-67 at Stanford University as a visiting associate professor, and held the same post at UCLA in 1968.
In 1969 Robin Gandy came to Oxford as the Reader in Mathematical Logic. Oxford’s undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Philosophy had been established shortly before Robin arrived, and demanded an enormous amount of logic teaching from Robin and Michael Dummett. Robin cheerfully gave twice as many lectures a year as his contract called for, and scores of tutorials. The situation eased somewhat in 1972 when Oxford established a new chair in mathematical logic, to which Dana Scott was appointed. Gandy and Scott also between them established a thriving research group in mathematical logic. Gandy was a creative and generous supervisor, and supervised a total of 27 PhD theses (and these doctorates have among them 171 doctoral descendants, according to the Mathematics Genealogy’s Project).
Robin Gandy’s importance as a mathematical logician was established by the results he obtained in the 1960s in recursion theory and descriptive set theory. He excelled both in conceptual innovation and intricate technical argumentation in his treatment of computation processes on infinite amounts of data. He was concerned as well with foundational understanding of key notions of computation, and published two particularly important papers in this area. He also published papers exploring and developing the possibilities of understanding mathematics as strictly finite (only finite structures exist) and even as ultrafinite (mathematics only encompassing what is humanly accessible).
Connection with the College
Robin Gandy was a Professorial Fellow and member of the Governing Body of Wolfson College from Hilary Term 1970 until his retirement in 1986, and then Emeritus Fellow until his death, in November 1995, aged 76. Robin joined Wolfson in the legendary days of 60 Banbury Road. He moved with the College into the splendid new building by the Cherwell, and was the first resident of the south-east penthouse flat. Robin had a passion for fireworks, and instituted the College’s Guy Fawkes Night display on the island of the punt harbour, for which he bought, set out, and ignited the devices, assisted by a cohort of graduate students and the occasional colleague. The tradition has continued to the present day, though now in professional hands. Robin organised the 1986 Wolfson Lectures, on The Nature of Mathematics, in which he gave the opening lecture, ‘What is mathematics’, which brought together his notable expertise in mathematics with philosophical acuity. Wolfson suited Robin perfectly, and his affection for the College continued undiminished after he moved from his penthouse to Squitchey Lane in retirement. When he died, it emerged that he had bequeathed his whole estate to Wolfson, at that time the most generous benefaction to the College since the founding benefactions of the Wolfson Foundation and the Ford Foundation that provided the building and an endowment. In appreciation of this generosity, the College named its then new residence block The Robin Gandy Building (North and South), thus bringing the name of Robin Gandy continually into everyday life in the College.