Robin Milner died on March 20, 2010. For obits see here and here. A review of his most recent book will be in a future SIGACT NEWS book review column; however, you can read it here.
This is a guest post by
about Robin Milner.
A REMEMBRANCE OF ROBIN MILNER
by Rance Cleveland.
Robin Milner died March 20, 2010 of a heart attack at age 76. He made
numerous contributions in the areas of automated reasoning, programming
languages, software verification and concurrency theory and was awarded
the Turing Award in 1991. (British readers will also note his election
as Fellow of the Royal Society in 1988.) His contributions to the
development of the Logic of Computable Functions, the programming
language ML, the Calculus of Communicating Systems (CCS) and the
pi-calculus are justly revered and amply documented in the many
obituaries that populate the media.
I want instead to offer a recollection of my own about Robin, whom I
first met in 1987 while I was visiting Edinburgh, where he was at the
time a professor. I had just finished my PhD and had arrived in the UK
for a two-year postdoc at the University of Sussex, where I was to work
on a joint project (the Concurrency Workbench project) involving that
university and Edinburgh. I was not quite 26, very green, unpublished
at the time, and star-struck at meeting people like Matthew Hennessy (my
supervisor at Sussex) and Colin Stirling (another project member at
Edinburgh), whose papers I had read during my studies. I could not
fathom meeting an Olympian like Robin Milner, and indeed during the
initial days meeting at Edinburgh I kept my mouth shut and tried not to
succumb to a sense of surreal disconnect.
The meetings came to a close, and the question arose as to where I was
to stay that evening. A PhD student at Edinburgh had been drafted to
host me, but when Robin heard this, he instead offered accommodation at
his house. More comfortable, you can have your own room he said.
Of course I accepted his offer, even as the rising thunder in my ears
presaged the possibility of a nervous collapse, and we went to his house
after a group meal at a restaurant.
Would you like some vodka? he inquired, explaining that a visiting
Russian mathematician (recall the Cold War was still ongoing, and
meeting a Russian, never mind hosting one in your house, was impossibly
exotic to me) had brought it to him a few weeks previously.
Well, yes, I would, thank you very much.
So out came the bottle, and we spent the next two hours talking about
process algebra, bisimulations, logical characterizations of system
equivalence, you name it. And I began to relax, and enjoy the
conversation, because Robin was listening intently, and responding
intelligently and respectfully, and offering up intuitions and insights
that made concepts I had struggled to understand on my own instantly
clear, and even inevitable. And I realized that I could not only
follow, but contribute.
The next morning Robin and his wife Lucy made me breakfast, and he and I
returned to the university for more meetings, with me leaving that
afternoon to return to Sussex. That whole day, though, I remember
feeling light as a feather, willing to wheel and dart and engage
intellectually with other team members like I had not just the day
before. In retrospect, I think I can say I became a scientist that
night, sharing a glass of vodka with Robin Milner.
I saw Robin from time to time over the years, every few months during
the course of the project, less so as the years passed and my career
took its own path. I still can recall with almost crystalline clarity,
though, that night, where a great scientist showed a young acolyte one
of the greatest kindnesses of all: taking him seriously.
Rest in peace, Robin.