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Malcolm Swan - a Tribute to a Maths Genius

When I first met Malcolm Swan it was immediately apparent that the illness that was to take him already had a firm hold. Indeed, it was because of that illness and his prognosis that Malcolm had been referred to me in the first place.

I met with him and his wife, Margaret, several times as we worked together to get his affairs in order, but as is sadly often the case I felt that I got to know him best only after he had gone, and I came to attend his funeral service. What a moving occasion it was.

I knew that Malcolm was accomplished in his field, but I hadn’t appreciated quite how widespread his influence had been. He was a towering figure in the teaching of mathematics, and was obviously revered by his colleagues and peers for his work. He was one of those rare individuals who see the world differently, who delight in making the complex seem easy.

Malcolm created a series of teaching aids and methods that changed both the way in which students received instruction and, much more importantly, the way in which teachers viewed their role. He was clearly a huge inspiration to literally millions of people – the online toolkit that he helped to create has been downloaded over 7 million times and is in daily use throughout the world. The tributes to him are packed with personal testimonies of the influence of Malcolm’s ideas.

The reason why Malcolm’s funeral was packed with mourners wasn’t just about his academic achievements, though – in fact I would suggest that they fell into a distant second place behind the fact that he was just such a loveable, generous and life-loving man. We heard about his playfulness, sense of humour and generosity, and mostly about his love of people. Malcolm was a committed member of his local church, and he loved working with young people, creating new ways to see the world and sharing his faith and positive view of life.

What a vivid contrast with the news from the previous day, when a young man in Manchester decided, for reasons we will never understand, to remove not only himself from this world but also as many other people as he could manage to take with him. No wonder that we were all so aghast at the terrifying thought of anyone packing nuts, bolts and shrapnel into an explosive package and detonating it inside a crowded hall of young people. Malcolm would have been distraught.

We will never be able to stop truly determined people from committing atrocities such as the one at Manchester, although the security services do a brilliant job in the face of such attacks. But when such an event occurs, it is good to remember that people like Malcolm – deeply caring, truly humble, yet massive contributors to the world – embody the kind of humanity that makes life worth living and an example that I am proud to be associated with.

Malcolm, thank you, and rest in peace.


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