UC Berkeley mathematics alumnus uses 1995 California lottery winnings to endow annual campus professorship

by Robert Sanders

Berkeley -- The California lottery paid off big time last year for UC Berkeley mathematics alumnus Bob Uomini, and now, thanks to his generosity, it's paying off for his old department as well.

Uomini set aside money from the $22 million lottery jackpot he won last year to endow a visiting professorship in the Department of Mathematics in honor of mathematics professor Shiing-Shen Chern, who he credits for getting him into graduate school.

To inaugurate the Shiing-Shen Chern Visiting Professorships, the department will host a half-day symposium in Chern's honor Thursday (April 11), featuring talks by the first Chern Visiting Professor, Sir Michael Atiyah of Cambridge University, as well as by Chern himself.

The Chern Symposium will be held in the Arthur Andersen Auditorium, 295 Haas Business Building, from 2-5:30 p.m. Thursday.

As a PhD mathematician Uomini knows full well the astronomical odds against winning the California lottery, but he considers the ten tickets he still purchases when the jackpot tops $10 million as an excuse for fantasizing. One of the few fantasies he indulged after winning was to endow a lectureship in honor of Chern, his favorite professor.

"I loved his lectures," Uomini said. He found Chern's undergraduate course in differential geometry so exciting and stimulating that "by the end of the class I felt I wanted to become a differential geometer."

As he completed his coursework for an A.B. in mathematics in 1969, Uomini applied to graduate school at Berkeley, but despite a letter from Chern he was turned down, primarily because of his poor grades. Chern urged him to reapply, though, and this time, with Chern's strong support, he got in. Uomini completed his PhD work in 1976.

"I got in only because of Chern," Uomini said. "Since my graduation, in order to recognize my indebtedness to Chern, I wanted to create a chair in his name."

The day after he won the lottery in January of last year, Uomini called the chair of the math department to start the wheels rolling.

Now, a year later, his fantasy is complete. Uomini and his wife set up the Robert G. Uomini and Louise B. Bidwell Foundation and directed that investment income generated from contributions they make each year from their lottery income will be used to pay for an extended visit of an outstanding mathematician to the UC Berkeley campus.

This year the department invited Atiyah to spend five weeks on campus talking with faculty and students. He also is delivering a series of eight lectures on "Topology and Quantum Field Theory."

Atiyah, director of the new Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, England, is a world-renowned mathematician who has done research in a number of areas including geometry and topology. Most recently he has been interested in the mathematics of elementary particle physics. A recipient of the Fields Medal, the "Nobel Prize of mathematics," he is past president of England's Royal Society.

The 85-year-old Chern, now professor emeritus of mathematics, is regarded as one of the greatest geometers of his generation. For six decades he led the field of differential geometry, and made seminal contributions to numerous other fields.

Also speaking at the afternoon symposium will be Uomini's dissertation supervisor Blaine Lawson Jr., at the time a young assistant professor at Berkeley and now an internationally acclaimed mathematician who has made many contributions to geometry and topology. Recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences, Lawson is professor of mathematics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Uomini no longer practices mathematics, but instead is involved in software development. Now "in active retirement," he has developed a unique internet newsreader he is beginning to market, and is working on software he hopes will predict the behavior of the financial market. His business is in the East Bay.

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