Klaus Roth, Britain’s first Fields Medalist, who died last year at the age of 90, has left over £1.3 mln to the charities Chest, Heart and Stroke Scotland and MacMillan Cancer Support in Inverness, Scotland. How wonderful to read not only about a life full of mathematics, but also that is has been rewarded financially. It is not so often that I read of a successful professional mathematician who has passed away in their old age, and with a substantial fortune.
Roth’s life story is fascinating. One of the many British scientists of German origin, Klaus Friedrich Roth was born in Breslau (today Poland) in 1925 and came to Britain as a 8-year old child in 1933 with his Jewish-German parents. He went to St.Paul’s school in London and then studied mathematics in Cambridge. He was good at maths, but his anxiety during exams was so bad that he graduated with a 3rd class degree and his tutor advised him to “some commercial job with a statistical bias”. So Roth taught maths at school (Gordonstoun, in Scotland) for a year and then was accepted onto a Masters course at UCL. He went on to become a lecturer at UCL after completing his Masters. Times were different. Today he might not have made it to a MMath course so easily, let alone receive a lectureship so soon after. He would have had to move countries many times before having a shot at getting a permanent job somewhere.
Klaus Roth went on to make important contributions to number theory (analytic theory of numbers and more precisely Diophantine approximation) and to live happily with his wife, Dr Melek Khairy, until her death in 2002. Pity the article in the Scotsman mentions only the lovely story of how they met (classroom romance! she attended his lectures at UCL), and that they did not have children, but omits the fact Dr Khairy was a medical and experimental psychologist at Imperial College London. Plenty of happy marriages in their generation were composed of an academic husband and a homemaker wife, with or without offspring. But when someone, especially a woman, of that generation isn’t a homemaker, this is worth mentioning. In fact I assumed that until I googled her name for no particular reason, only to come across a bunch of paper she had published in the 1950s and 60s.
Another relevant biographical detail is that she died of cancer in 2002. After her death Roth moved to live in a nursing home in Inverness. This may be why he felt so committed to the cause of health and cancer support in particular.
In the book Art in the Life of Mathematicians (edited by Anna Kepes Szemerédi and viewable on google books) there is a chapter written by the editor which is entitled “Conversations with Klaus Roth” (pp. 249-253). Klaus and Melek were avid dancers and loved Latin music and Mahler.
Klaus Roth got the Fields Medal in 1958 for his contribution to the Thue-Siegel theorem. Roth’s theorem proves that any irrational algebraic number has an approximation exponent equal to two (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thue%E2%80%93Siegel%E2%80%93Roth_theorem).