Saturday, February 22

Geoffrey Mess, math professor known for intellectual curiosity, dies at 54

Geoffrey Mess, a UCLA mathematics professor who was known for his curiosity, died on Aug. 8 at the age of 54. (Courtesy of Anna Ramos)

Geoffrey Mess, a UCLA mathematics professor who was known for his insight and exuberant curiosity, died on Aug. 8 at the age of 54.

Mess was recognized for his driven personality even at a young age and known as one of the top researchers in the field of topology, a subgroup in mathematics that studies geometric properties and spatial relations.

Mess was born in 1960 in Montreal, Canada, to David and Annette Mess, who met in India when David Mess was working for the State Department. By an early age, Mess showed signs of high intelligence by displaying a profound understanding of numbers. He skipped two grades during his early education, said Derek Mess, his older brother.

Mess was two years younger than his classmates, and thus 2 feet shorter for much of high school. He was taking math courses at the University of Delaware before his high school career was up, Derek Mess said.

In 1980, Mess graduated from the University of Waterloo, and in 1988, he came to UCLA after earning a Ph.D. in topology from UC Berkeley.

“When you’re really bright, you don’t really feel respected,” Derek Mess said. “All the way along he was recognized as a very bright guy, but then people realized just how brilliant he was.”

Throughout his life, Mess had an intensity and eagerness about him and was a man of ideas, Derek Mess said.

“He wanted to talk about what was fascinating to him, which was math and so much more,” Derek Mess said.

While searching for a new topologist to bring to UCLA, Robert Edwards, a mathematics professor, said he remembered Mess as being quiet and reserved, but having astounding intelligence. He added that Mess went to the top of his list of candidates after he read his college thesis concerning Torelli groups within topology.

“He was one of the smartest people anyone ever met and a great resource,” Edwards said. “Everyone in the department can tell a story (of when) they needed to understand something and went to Geoff. Even if it wasn’t topology, he could solve it with uncanny clarity.”

At UCLA, Mess supervised seven graduate students, Edwards said.

One of his former students, Kevin Scannell said that Mess was one of the smartest people he had ever met and would often do his research work until 2 or 3 a.m.

“At 2 in the morning if I was stuck on something, I could go knock on his door. He always wanted to talk about math, no matter what time,” Scannell said. “My memories are a blur of long nights in his office going over problems.”

Mess would never give his students direct answers to their math problems and would make them solve all problems on their own, he added.

“He would say ‘I’m going to go get coffee’ and leave you in his office for an hour to think,” Scannell said.

He said that Mess was also well read and had a nearly photographic memory. Mess could dictate, from memory, the exact book and page number of a theorem he wanted a student to read.

One night, the graduate students were playing a game of “dictionary,” picking a word at random and attempting to come up with the correct definition, said Eleanor G. Rieffel, a former graduate student of Mess.

“When Geoff was asked to join, he said it would be pointless, and when people asked why, he said, ‘I know all the words in the dictionary.’ When they tested him, he did indeed know them,” Rieffel said, laughing.

Mess’ intelligence expanded beyond the realm of mathematics, and he had a great interest in ethnography, languages and culture, Derek Mess said.

During his adult years, Mess spent time studying Russian and German. In the year before his death, he also took on Persian, Derek Mess said. Mess was able to practice different languages by reading translated versions of the “Harry Potter” books, which he knew well.

Growing up in a small town near undeveloped land and woods, Derek Mess said he and his brother would often explore and hike, going further as they gained confidence.

When the brothers were about 12 and 13, they went on a three-day hiking trip alone. It was one of the first major trips that inspired Mess to continue backpacking when he was older, Derek Mess said.

“Geoff was only born 16 months (after me),” Derek Mess said. “We grew up doing an awful lot together. We were best buddies.”

Geoffrey Mess is survived by his brother, Derek Mess, and nephew, Dylan Mess. The university flag will be flown at half-staff on Sept. 4 in his honor. Services will be private.

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