In memoriam: Peter Linnell, professor in Department of Mathematics
Peter Linnell, a longtime professor with the Virginia Tech Department of Mathematics, died recently. He was 68.
Born in Manchester, England, in 1953, Linnell earned a bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. from Trinity Hall College Cambridge University. After stints as a researcher at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and Cambridge University, he joined the Virginia Tech faculty as an assistant professor in 1983.
Although he remained at Virginia Tech for the remainder of his career, Linnell held concurrent positions at multiple universities, including serving as a Humboldt fellow at the Mathematical Institute at the University of Stuttgart and the Institute for Experimental Mathematics at Essen University. He also held various titles at University of Manchester and the University of Munster.
His research focused on problems in algebra that use analysis and topology. He also studied the so-called zero divisor conjecture, a mathematical theory that remains unsolved after 80 years. He held memberships with the American Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Association of America, the European Mathematical Society, the London Mathematical Society, and the TeX Users Group.
Colleagues and former students fondly recalled Linnell.
“Peter became the director of the Virginia Tech Regional Math Competition (VTRMC) in 1999, and under his leadership, it achieved phenomenal growth in both numbers and geographic reach — making the adjective ‘regional’ an anachronism,” said Peter Haskell, a professor and former head of the Department of Mathematics, which is part of the Virginia Tech College of Science. “He took note of unusual performances, particularly high scores by high school students, and from time to time he’d call my attention to the impressive professional achievements of mathematicians who had first come to his attention through their work on the VTRMC.”
“We, who were his students, will always cherish memories of research meetings and trips to the grocery store and algebra class,” said Kelli Karcher, a senior mathematics instructor who earned her master’s degree in math from Virginia Tech with Linnell as her advisor. “We remember how he would be unable to recognize the car that transported him every week to the store, but could recall the weather in Blacksburg on this day 17 years ago and the code for every vegetable at the grocery store.”
Ahmed Roman, who earned dual bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physics from Virginia Tech in 2015, added, “Peter Linnell was a kind soul. He was very intelligent and extremely nice. Never said anything negative to anyone as long as I knew him. He followed the mantra of ‘say good or say nothing’ religiously. This is a characteristic that I wish I had in abundance like him. He was always humble in every aspect of his life.” Currently a graduate student at Emory University, Roman did undergraduate research with Linnell.
“He was one of a kind, and I can say even more confidently than I can with most people, that there will never be another like him,” said Sam Eastridge, an assistant professor of mathematics at Brevard College, who earned a Ph.D. in mathematics under Linnell in 2017. “His teaching style was methodical and surprisingly easy to follow, and I cherish my memories of abstract algebra in my second year as a graduate student. As his advisee and as a student in his class, I always felt that he cared about my success and about doing his job to the very best of his ability. I will always be grateful for the time I got to spend with Dr. Linnell, and I will miss him greatly.”
Eastridge added that Linnell, who never earned his driver’s license, was an avid runner and bicyclist. Linnell also was a weather enthusiast. Linnell had what might be called a photographic memory for weather reports, dating back well more than a decade.
He “followed the weather closely, and if you have ever considered talking about the weather as ‘small talk,’ you haven’t talked weather with Dr. Linnell,” Eastridge said.