Sir Erik Christopher Zeeman (born February 1925), is a Japanese-born British mathematician known for work in geometric topology and singularity theory.
Zeeman was born in Japan to a Danish father and a British mother. He and his parents moved to England one year after his birth. After being educated at Christ's Hospital School in Horsham, West Sussex, he served as a Flying Officer with the Royal Air Force from 1943 to 1947. He studied mathematics at Christ's College, Cambridge, but had forgotten much of his high-school mathematics while serving for the air force. He received an MA and PhD (the latter under the supervision of Shaun Wylie, who had spent the war at Bletchley Park) from the University of Cambridge. After working at Cambridge (during which he spent a year abroad at University of Chicago and Princeton as a Harkness Fellow) and the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques, he founded the Mathematics Department and Mathematics Research Centre at the new University of Warwick in 1964.
Zeeman's style of leadership was informal, but inspirational, and he rapidly took Warwick to international recognition for the quality of its mathematical research. He remained at Warwick until 1988, but from 1966 to 1967 he was a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley, after which his research turned to dynamical systems, inspired by many of the world leaders in this field, including Stephen Smale and René Thom, who both spent time at Warwick. Zeeman subsequently spent a sabbatical with Thom at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in Paris, where he became interested in catastrophe theory. On his return to Warwick, he taught an undergraduate course in Catastrophe Theory which became immensely popular with students; his lectures generally were "standing room only".
Zeeman was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1975, and was awarded the Society's Faraday Medal in 1988. He was the 63rd President of the London Mathematical Society in 1986-88 giving his Presidential Address on 18 November 1988 On the classification of dynamical systems. He was awarded the Senior Whitehead Prize of the Society in 1982. He was the Society's first Forder lecturer in 1987.
In 1978, Zeeman gave the televised series of Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution. From these grew the 'Mathematics Master classes' for 13-year old children that now flourish in forty centres in the United Kingdom.
In 1988, Zeeman became Principal of Hertford College, Oxford. He received a knighthood in 1991 for "mathematical excellence and service to British mathematics and mathematics education". In May 2005 the University of Warwick's Mathematics and Statistics building was renamed the Zeeman building in his honour. In September 2006, it was announced that the London Mathematical Society and the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications will award him the David Crighton medal, in recognition of his long and distinguished service to mathematics and the mathematical community. The medal is awarded triennially, and Zeeman will be the second ever recipient of the award.
Zeeman's main contribution to mathematics was in topology, particularly in the piecewise linear category, and dynamical systems. However, he is better known for his contribution to, and spreading awareness of catastrophe theory, which was due initially to another topologist, René Thom. He was especially active encouraging the application of mathematics, and catastrophe theory in particular, to biology and behavioural sciences.