Renowned mathematician Elias M. Stein, the Albert Baldwin Dod Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus, at the University, passed away on Dec. 23, 2018, at the age of 87.
According to Stein’s family, his death was caused by complications related to mantle cell lymphoma.
Elias Menachem Stein was born on Jan. 13, 1931, in Antwerp, Belgium, to Polish citizens Chana Goldman and Elkan Stein, the latter of whom was a diamond merchant. In 1940, the Steins fled Belgium amid the German invasion. In April of the following year, Elias Stein entered the United States with diamonds hidden in the insoles of his shoes aboard the U.S.S. Nyassa.
According to Stein’s daughter, Karen Stein ’84, during the three weeks that he spent on Ellis Island, Stein noticed “a strange game with sticks” that children played. Baseball, a sport he would later come to admire, was part of the peculiar culture of the new homeland for which, along with its fascinating democracy, Stein developed great affections.
After the Stein family settled in New York City, Elias studied at Stuyvesant High School, where he captained the math team and graduated in 1949.
Upon graduation, Stein enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he studied mathematics and earned a B.A. in 1951, followed by his Ph.D., in 1955, under the guidance of Polish mathematician Antoni Zygmund.
After a brief professional appointment in Chicago, Stein accepted a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to Sylvia Nasar’s book, “A Beautiful Mind,” he befriended future Nobel laureate John F. Nash Jr. GS ’50 and utilized his father’s connections in the diamond industry to help Nash buy a ring for his future wife.
Following his departure from MIT, Stein spent an academic year at the Institute for Advanced Study and was offered a tenured faculty position at the University, which he joined in 1963 and remained at for the rest of his life. At the University, Stein twice chaired the math department and held an endowed chair as the Albert Baldwin Dod Professor of Mathematics for decades.
Stein, along with then-graduate student Rami Shakarchi GS ’02, wrote the “Princeton Lectures in Analysis,” a series of textbooks for the teaching of real analysis, functional analysis, complex analysis, and Fourier analysis. These books accompany the courses MAT 325, MAT 335, MAT 425, and MAT 520, which make up a sequence also created by Stein.
Stein’s contributions to mathematics were mainly in the field of harmonic analysis, which studies structures and patterns by breaking them down into wave-like components. Stein’s research has been used in numerous applications, including the study of financial markets and gravitational waves.
Among Stein’s honors include the Schock Prize in 1993, the Wolf Prize in 1999, and the National Medal of Science, awarded by President George W. Bush at the White House, in 2002. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Stein received honorary degrees from his alma mater, the University of Chicago, in 1992 and from Peking University in 1988, after his efforts to restore their mathematical community following the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution.
Charles Fefferman GS ’69, the Herbert E. Jones Jr. ’43 University Professor of Mathematics, a 1978 recipient of the Fields Medal, and a Ph.D. student of Stein’s, voiced his admiration for Stein’s qualities as both a teacher and research mathematician.
“He thought very carefully about viewing every problem and every topic from the correct point of view,” Fefferman said to The Daily Princetonian. “But, much more than the quality of the individual explanations, there was a feeling of optimism that he conveyed to everybody with whom he interacted. Math was exciting and you could do it.”
The reverence for Stein’s teaching is shared by DoWon Kim ’19, a current undergraduate concentrator in mathematics.
“Elias Stein’s complex analysis course [MAT 335] was the reason I decided to become a math major,” said Kim to the ‘Prince.’
Terence Tao GS ’96, a 2006 Fields Medalist and the James and Carol Collins Chair in Mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles, was also a Ph.D. student of Stein’s. He echoed Fefferman’s sentiments with regards to Stein.
“Sometimes, when you are doing mathematics, you lose sight of why you are doing things. He would isolate the simplest, most elegant questions that, if answered, would give us the tools and insights to attack the [other questions],” Tao said. “Through him, I saw that mathematics could actually have a plan.”
Stein’s son, Jeremy Stein ’83, also spoke about his father’s inquisitive nature and suggested that he learned from his father about how to be a professional academic.
Jeremy Stein is currently the chairman for the economics department at Harvard University.
“He was just incredibly curious, optimistic, [and] interested in everything,” Jeremy Stein said to the ‘Prince.’ “I think that was his most defining set of qualities. As I progressed into [my academic career], [he influenced] my notion of how to conduct myself.”
Stein’s daughter, Karen Stein ’84, discussed her observations of her father’s vocation as a mathematician and her memories of political discourse with him.
“We spent countless hours discussing the intricacies of some current events,” Karen Stein said. “He had an amazing memory and command of detail. When it came to politics, he remembered [things like] who was on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1972.”
“As a child, my memory of my father working was him sitting with a pad of yellow paper [and] a pen in his hand, staring into space,” Karen Stein continued. “I came to understand that it was like, in a way, being an artist.”
Elias Stein is survived by Elly Intrator, his wife of 59 years; his brother, Daniel; his son, Jeremy Stein ’83, who is a former member of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve; his daughter, Karen Stein ’84, an architecture critic and former member of the jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize; his daughter-in-law, Anne; and three grandchildren, Carolyn, Alison, and Jason.