Skip to main content

Obituary: Professor Uffe Haagerup

With Professor Uffe Haagerup’s untimely death on 5 July 2015, Denmark and indeed the entire world lost a unique mathematical genius, a warm and amiable person, and a beloved father.

Translated from Danish by Wojciech Szymanski and Jacob Hjelmborg.

Uffe Haagerup was born on 19 December 1949 in Kolding. He grew up in Faaborg along with his elder brother, Jens, who was a source of great inspiration throughout Uffe’s childhood. Already at the age of 10, Uffe was helping local surveyors by solving land-measuring problems. This activity initiated his life-long interest in maps and atlases. Uffe graduated from high school in Svendborg in 1968.

In the same year, 1968, Uffe began studying mathematics and physics at the University of Copenhagen. His fascination with modern physics, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics, combined with his love for the exact language of mathematics, led him towards mathematical analysis and theory of operator algebras, the branch of mathematics used in the exact mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics.

Uffe Haagerup obtained his first international scientific breakthrough already during his studies at the University of Copenhagen. Indeed, his MSc thesis contained an exciting new vision of a brand new theory developed only a few years earlier by two Japanese mathematicians, Tomita and Takesaki. From that moment, Uffe Haagerup’s name became widely known throughout the entire international mathematical community, although the correct pronunciation of his surname remained largely unknown!

A string of new discoveries soon followed, typically leading to solutions of hard mathematical problems no one else could come to grips with. A high point in Uffe’s career was his solution of the so-called “Champagne problem” in 1985, posed by another mathematical superstar, French Professor and Fields medalist, Alain Connes. This problem constituted the final piece of a large-scale classification problem of the so-called hyperfinite factor von Neumann algebras. With this achievement, Uffe Haagerup was transformed from an internationally known and acclaimed mathematician to a world-class superstar, whose scientific contributions will last forever.

As a new graduate from the University of Copenhagen, with such an impressive thesis, Uffe taught at a high school for six months before being employed as an assistant professor at the then newly established Department of Mathematics at Odense University (now known as the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science (IMADA) at the University of Southern Denmark). In 1981, he was promoted to full Professor at the age of 31, becoming the youngest professor in Denmark. Despite several offers of prestigious appointments from leading American universities, he chose to remain in Denmark, with a few extended stays abroad, notably at UCLA, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto. Uffe served as editor-in-chief for the top mathematical journal Acta Mathematica from 2000 to 2006. He gave guest lectures in countless places all over the world, including a keynote address at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Beijing in 2002. In 2010, Uffe received a prestigious 5-year “Advanced Grant” from the European Research Council, which he took at the University of Copenhagen. At the beginning of 2015, he returned to his professorship at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense.

Uffe Haagerup held the title Knight of Dannebrog, and was member of both the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and the Royal Norwegian Academy of Sciences. He was awarded the Samuel Friedman prize at UCLA, the German Humboldt Prize and the Danish Ole Rømer Prize. The European Science Foundation awarded Haagerup the Latsis Prize in 2012, and the following year, he joined an exclusive club of people who can call themselves Honorary Doctor at a Chinese university.

Uffe Haagerup was a popular teacher and respected supervisor for his many MSc and PhD students. He will be missed by his two adult sons, Peter and Søren, his family, his friends and not least by his numerous colleagues in Denmark and abroad. He will be remembered for his tremendously friendly personality and for his great mathematical skills and ideas, of which he shared so generously.