Monday, May 03, 2010

Guest Post on Robin Milner who passed away recently

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 Rance Cleaveland about Robin Milner.


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 I was not quite 26, very green, unpublished at the time, and star-struck at meeting people like Matthew Hennessy (my supervisor at Sussex) and Colin Stirling (another project member at Edinburgh), whose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.

Oh dear.

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.


  1. Beautiful indeed. Thanks to Rance for writing such a heart-felt guest post on Robin.

  2. I was in Edinburgh at the same time as you Rance. I also met Robin at the same time I guess. Great memories of him indeed and very much similar to my own. Thanks for the post.

    Steve Ross-Talbot