Bjarni Jónsson, 1920-2016

Sad news via the FOM list today:

Published in Tennessean on Nov. 6, 2016

Bjarni Jónsson, originally of Draghals, Iceland, passed away in Cincinnati, OH on
Friday, September 30, 2016 at the age of 96. Beloved husband of the late Harriet P.
(nee Parkes) Jonsson. Devoted father of Eric (Kaye) Jonsson, Meryl (Bob) Runion Rose
and Kristin (Rick) Porotsky. Loving grandfather of Elisabeth (Terry) Winslow, David
Runion, and Brent, Gena, Aaron, Billy and Cole Porotsky. Former resident of Nashville,
Tennessee. He was Vanderbilt’s first Distinguished Professor of Mathematics. A leader
in his field and author of 89 technical papers, he received many commendations for his
work, including the Earl Sutherland Prize for Academic Research as well as the Knights
Cross awarded by the President of Iceland.

Please send donations in his honor to:

Bjarni Jonsson Research Prize
Department of Mathematics
1326 Stevenson Center
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, TN 37240.

Noted algebraist Bjarni Jónsson dies
by David Salisbury, Oct. 12, 2016

Bjarni Jónsson, Vanderbilt’s first Distinguished Professor of Mathematics, died Sept.
30 at the age of 96.

Born in Iceland, Jónsson earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from the
University of California-Berkeley and also received an honorary degree from the
University of Iceland. He was internationally recognized as a leading authority on
universal algebra, lattice theory and algebraic logic.

In his career, Jónsson authored 89 technical papers and served on the editorial board
of several major mathematics journals, including Algebra Universalis. He presented
numerous invited talks at mathematics conferences around the world. In 1974, he was an
invited speaker at the International Congress of Mathematicians. In 2012 he was
elected an inaugural fellow of the American Mathematical Society. He was also the
recipient of Vanderbilt’s Harvie Branscomb Distinguished Professor Award in 1974 and
the Earl Sutherland Prize for Achievement in Research in 1982.

“Bjarni Jónsson was a remarkable mathematician who made field-defining and path-
breaking contributions in universal algebra, lattice theory and algebraic logic.
Anyone who had the fortune to know him admired his integrity, kindness and immense
respect for colleagues and friends. His influence on my personal and mathematical life
has been enormous, and it is a great privilege that I have had the opportunity to work
with and learn from him,” said Professor Constantine Tsinakis, a long-term colleague
and a former chair of the mathematics department.

“To me Bjarni will always be a legend, who in his quiet, sincere, unassuming ways
continues to inspire uncountably many algebraists, raising questions and re-examining
areas that he feels would benefit from an algebraic approach,” wrote Peter Jipsen, one
of the doctoral students that Jónsson advised, on the occasion of his 70th birthday.
“While some mathematicians almost revel in stringing together long complex arguments,
Bjarni has constantly sought to simplify and illuminate the subjects dear to him,” the
professor of mathematics at Chapman University added.

Jónsson came to Vanderbilt in 1966 and taught here until his retirement in 1993. When
he arrived, mathematics was mostly an undergraduate teaching department. He was
instrumental in establishing the department’s graduate program, which presently ranks
among the top departments in the nation, according to the latest evaluation by the
National Research Council. Jónsson also formed a research group in algebra that
attracted mathematicians from around the world and contributed substantially to the
high research profile that the department currently enjoys.

Algebra is the study of mathematical objects and the rules for manipulating them.
Jónsson made his most important contributions in the area of universal algebra. It is
one of the most abstract subfields of algebra because it studies algebraic structures
in general, as opposed to specific classes of algebras, such as groups and fields. The
importance of his contributions is reflected by the fact that a number of mathematical
objects are named for him, including Jónsson and Jónsson-Tarski algebras, Jansson
cardinals, Jónsson terms, the Jónsson lemma and the Jónsson-Tarski duality.

During his tenure, Jónsson supervised 14 Ph.D. students. In letters they wrote for a
symposium in honor of his 70th birthday, which took place in Iceland in 1990, his
former students all expressed a deep appreciation for him as a “respected mathematical
guide and personal friend.”

One of the first students he supervised, Steven Monk, now professor emeritus at the
University of Washington, recalled advice that he received from Jónsson regarding
teaching: “Adventure is not in the guidebook and beauty is not on the map. The best
one can hope for is to be able to persuade some people to do some traveling on their

“Bjarni’s work and scholarly contributions will have a lasting legacy. His name will
forever be interwoven in the history of our department. We are honored to have had
him as a colleague,” noted the current department chair, Professor Mike Neamtu.

[Photo ©Steve Givant]

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