August 10, 2000

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Thomas H. Wolff, Expert in Math Analysis, Dies at 46

Dr. Thomas H. Wolff, a professor of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology who proved several important theorems in the study of mathematical functions and was regarded as a top expert in his field, died on July 31 in an automobile accident near Bakersfield, Calif. He was 46.

Only last year, Dr. Wolff shared the B˘cher Prize, awarded once every five years by the American Mathematical Society for research in mathematical analysis.

In that field, which includes the study of mathematical functions and differential equations, he was "probably No. 1 or 2 of his generation," Dr. Sun-Yung Alice Chang, a professor of mathematics at Princeton, said in an interview yesterday.

At Caltech, Dr. Barry Simon, the mathematics department's executive officer, or department chairman, said, "A number of times he took problems in mathematical analysis that were considered impossibly difficult and invented an entirely new way of looking at them."

For instance, he was only a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley when, in the late 1970's, he found a new approach to a theorem that had previously required a long, complicated proof. "Wolff found basically a three- or four-line proof," Dr. Simon said.

Dr. Wolff typically attacked one problem, devised new mathematical tools to solve it, then moved on to a new problem.

Some of his research involved Erwin Schr÷dinger's equation -- the fundamental equation of quantum mechanics -- and the behavior of electrons in disordered, glasslike material where they can be trapped in some regions yet flow freely in others.

In a message of sympathy to Dr. Simon, Dr. Peter W. Jones, chairman of the mathematics department at Yale, said of Dr. Wolff's work, "In the mathematical community, the common and rapid response to these breakthroughs was that they were seen not just as watershed events, but as lightning strikes that permanently altered the landscape."

Dr. Wolff, a native of New York City, graduated from Harvard in 1975 and received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Berkeley in 1979. After teaching and doing research at the University of Washington and the University of Chicago, he became an assistant professor at Caltech in 1982 and received tenure in 1986. He moved to New York University that year, returned to Caltech in 1988, moved on to Berkeley in 1992 and by 1995 was back at Caltech.

In addition to his professorship there, he was a member of the editorial boards of three mathematics journals.

Survivors include his wife, Dr. Carol Shubin, a professor of mathematics at California State University at Northridge; two sons, James and Richard, ages 3 and 5; his parents, Frank and Lucile Wolff of New York City; and his sisters, Virginia and Caroline. An earlier marriage, to Mei-Chu Chang, ended in divorce.

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