SIAM News Blog

Remembering Nick Higham: 1961-2024

In January 2024, the SIAM community suffered a major loss with the passing of longtime member and former SIAM president Nicholas J. Higham. Nick was an exceptional applied mathematician, communicator, mentor, colleague, and friend. His dedication and contributions to SIAM were unparalleled, and he approached every role, conversation, and research challenge with an intentional level of care that is a testament to his character. Here, a collection of friends, colleagues, and SIAM staff share their reflections, tributes, and memories of Nick.

“A former SIAM president once described his role as a “figurehead:” the head of the organization who was elected to represent the SIAM membership. The person in that role should exemplify the best of our discipline in every sense. In that regard, Nick was an ideal president.

Another connotation of the term “figurehead” is a leader without real power. It is true that the SIAM president is but one member of the Board of Trustees: the Society’s ultimate authority. But the president also chairs the SIAM Council, speaks with authority as the chief elected officer, and directs the organization through his or her interests and thoughts about what is best for SIAM. In that sense, Nick brought a wealth of experience and a depth of care as president.

Nick cared deeply about SIAM and its publications, communications, and students. Books were one of his major passions, and he worked tirelessly to bolster the SIAM book program and strengthen SIAM journals. He chaired SIAM’s Book Committee for seven years and remained a member of the committee until this year.

Nick was also invested in communications. One need only look at his presence on Twitter (now X) to understand his desire to share the wonders of linear algebra with a broad audience, and especially students. His interest in communicating applied mathematics also came to bear on SIAM News and the SIAM website, and he often worked with staff to ensure modern and lively communications.

As SIAM president, Nick knew where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do. He even initiated a strategic planning exercise that brought together many SIAM leaders to explore new initiatives and objectives during a weekend retreat. This led to multiple novel ideas for student programs, plans to strengthen industrial representation in SIAM, and several new directions for the SIAM Board and Council.

From left to right: Nick Higham, George Hall of the University of Manchester (Nick’s Ph.D. supervisor), and Charlie Van Loan of Cornell University gather for a photo at the conference on “Advances in Numerical Linear Algebra: Celebrating the 60th Birthday of Nick Higham,” which was held in July 2022 at the University of Manchester. Nick is wearing a Bohemian matrix eigenvalue tie, which was a gift from Rob Corless of the University of Western Ontario. Photo courtesy of Desmond Higham.
Nick had already served SIAM in many ways before being elected as president for 2017 and 2018. He was a member of the Committee on Programs and Conferences for six years and served on SIAM’s Board of Trustees from 2006 to 2009. He was then elected as SIAM’s Vice President-at-Large from 2010 to 2013 and was deeply involved with the Major Awards Committee and various activity groups during his tenure.

Nick’s dedicated service to SIAM covered all major activities: books, journals, awards, activity groups, conferences, and SIAM News. Of course, this commitment stemmed from Nick’s passion for his own research area of numerical linear algebra. He chaired the SIAM Activity Group on Linear Algebra from 2001 to 2003 and was an associate editor for the SIAM Journal on Matrix Analysis and Applications from 1989 to 2012; his atypically long stint was no doubt due to his editorial expertise and dedication.

Nick was not just a figurehead; he was a dedicated and major contributor to SIAM throughout his entire career. His presence will be missed by all of us who served with him.” Jim Crowley, former executive director of SIAM

“When I think of Manchester, I think of Nick. He loved the city and spent his entire life in its environs. He also loved the university and developed his entire academic career on its campus. There is something poetic and touching about these alignments. The industrial revolution began in Manchester and redefined how we work; Nick took that to a whole new level! The University of Manchester is famous for its role in the history of computing, and Nick has certainly added to that legacy.

This all comes together beautifully as a story, but it doesn’t explain Nick’s exquisite sense of humor or extraordinary ability to communicate, write, and win arguments with tact and grace. These gifts are the consequence of a very special family and circle of loved ones.

A story that Nick shared with me many years ago speaks to his essential character. As an eight-year-old boy, he was dissatisfied with his enrollment at a distant elementary school. So one day, he simply got off the bus, skipped class, and walked the 15 miles back to his home just to make a statement. Classic NJH!” Charlie Van Loan, Cornell University

“Nick was serving as president when I joined the SIAM staff, and I had the privilege of getting to know him through many SIAM Board and Council meetings, as well as through his committed and generous work on the SIAM books program. I quickly realized that Nick was a rare person indeed — brilliant in his analysis and attention to detail, yet so clear and down-to-earth in his communication style. His deep passion for SIAM—and particularly for the publications program—helped me understand very early on why so many people call the SIAM community their intellectual home.

Nick made many wonderful contributions as a highly successful SIAM book and journal author, a longtime member of the editorial board for the SIAM Journal on Matrix Analysis and Applications, and a provider of sound advice on general editorial matters. He wrote two of SIAM’s all-time bestsellers, both of which are now in their third editions: Handbook of Writing for the Mathematical Sciences and MATLAB Guide, the latter of which is fittingly coauthored with his brother, Des Higham. More recently, Nick coauthored a fascinating book with Dennis Sherwood called How to Be Creative: A Practical Guide for the Mathematical Sciences.

But the topics of these books reflect something deeper about Nick; he was not just focused on his own research and always had great passion and talent for helping others improve their skills and develop their ideas. In this way, Nick sought to raise all boats, and the SIAM community is stronger for it.

Thank you, Nick, for the many chats over the years. My team and I miss your energy, ideas, and good humour.” Kivmars Bowling, Director of Publications at SIAM

“Nick was of course an outstanding research leader in numerical analysis, but he was also a deeply kind man and I am honoured to say something about the brief time that I spent with him.

I can’t remember when I first met Nick in person, but we hit it off very quickly. Even though he was a giant in his field, he took great interest in my work as a junior member of academic staff in a different discipline. We had deep technical discussions but also spoke about careers, my role as a school governor, his sons’ school, and mathematician Jim Wilkinson’s work. Nick and I further bonded over our shared joy of mechanical calculating machines. One of my favourite conference experiences was attending the SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering with Nick.

Nick was also a profoundly practical person. Once I shared some numerical observations with him that he found surprising — a few days later he had coded up an example, verified this behaviour, and written a SIAM News column about it! He even sent me LaTeX tips for slides; his own presentations were always a model of clarity and depth.

Nick touched my research life more deeply than most. At some point I had wanted to take a sabbatical leave with him in the future. I thought there would be plenty of time.” George Constantinides, Imperial College London

“Nick was dedicated to the SIAM books program, and I interacted with him significantly over the years. After a book published, there was always the chance that he would send a “dreaded email:”

  • “I found some more copy-editing problems … it’s worrying that they were not caught.”
  • “There is a major problem … how could this have been allowed to happen?”
  • “Disappointed to see … this should have been picked up by the copy editor.”

After one such email, he sent a two-page document with “more quibbles”!

But the generous emails far outweighed the dreaded ones:

  • “Congratulations! It’s a wonderful addition to the literature and to SIAM’s catalogue. And a great example to other SIAM book authors of how to produce informative and readable figures.”
  • “I’m happy to do the panel again any time! If we get one new book as a result, it’s worth it.”
  • “I’m ok with the book … not everything it says … would I fully agree with, but then, I have that feeling about many things I read.”

And Nick had a wonderful sense of humor. “If Tim sees this, he’ll be off to upgrade his Ferrari,” he wrote when my typo increased a book’s reported sales by 10,000 copies. He even used emoticons!

I miss Nick for all of the obvious reasons. He was unfailingly generous with his time, advice, and encouragement — I treasure an email from him that ends with “well done!” But I also miss him because of the things unsaid and questions unanswered.” Elizabeth Greenspan, executive editor, SIAM Book Acquisitions

Nick Higham (sixth from left) poses with some former Ph.D. students at the conference on “Advances in Numerical Linear Algebra: Celebrating the 60th Birthday of Nick Higham,” which took place at the University of Manchester in July 2022. Attendees of this international workshop came together to honor Nick’s birthday and discuss current developments in the field of numerical linear algebra. Photo © Nick Higham.

“Nick was not just a good friend, colleague, and mentor; he was exceptional in every role he took on. I first crossed paths with him in the usual course of professional engagements: attending meetings, delving into his books and papers, and so forth.

As time progressed, our acquaintance deepened. In 2007, a proposal for a joint position at Manchester—shared between the Department of Mathematics and Department of Computer Science—was put forth by Nick and John Gurd. I found myself aligning more closely with Nick and his wife, Fran, ultimately becoming a Turing Fellow in the Department of Mathematics. Our collaboration blossomed across numerous projects.

Nick’s unwavering dedication to nurturing excellence and supporting others—regardless of their background or career stage—set a standard for community and leadership. He was approachable, insightful, and congenial. Over time, our connection evolved into a partnership that was marked by mutual intellectual curiosity, research collaboration, and mentorship.

Our journey together traversed various technical domains, from numerical linear algebra to high-performance computing and program analysis, and ultimately our exploration of mixed-precision computing. We engaged in spirited debates about complex technical challenges, both of us always enriched by the exchange.

While Nick’s research contributions were significant, his leadership within the community was equally remarkable. His dedication to SIAM, including his presidency in 2017 and 2018, was especially notable.

Nick’s impact was profound in countless ways. His legacy—in both his work and our friendship—will endure, but his absence will be keenly felt. He was more than a mentor, colleague, and friend; he was an inspiration.”Jack Dongarra, University of Tennessee

“Nick established and led a world-leading research group in numerical analysis at Manchester, and we were both lucky to join this group in the early 2010s. At that time, Nick held a European Research Council Advanced Grant that helped create a vibrant research environment and attract many Ph.D. students and postdocs. It is hard to imagine a better place to be a young researcher. Nick ensured that the group’s activities were visible and recognized; he co-organized several well-attended international workshops in Manchester that got everyone involved. His 60th birthday conference in 2022 featured more than 30 speakers from around the world — a true recognition of the number of careers he influenced throughout the years. And while much of that activity was due to Nick’s reputation and high professional standing, his humble leadership provided room for group members to establish their own research programmes.

But Nick and his wife Fran created more than a successful research group. They nurtured a thriving community of young researchers with enduring friendships that extend across the globe. Thanks to their dedication, Manchester has been a place of warm hospitality and inspiration for generations of students, postdocs, colleagues, and visitors.

Nick leaves behind a lasting legacy of excellence, generosity, and kindness. His memory will live on in our hearts and minds.” Stefan Güttel, University of Manchester and Mary Aprahamian Güttel, Slalom

“Nick was a wonderful friend to SIAM who took a special interest in SIAM News. When he visited the Philadelphia office during his presidency—and he did so numerous times—he often had lunch with SIAM News staff. He was an excellent conversationalist with broad interests; our chats covered a wide variety of topics, from hobbies and personal anecdotes to the publication process, social media, and the SIAM News blog. He wrote 20 “From the SIAM President” columns for SIAM News in 2017 and 2018: one for each issue that published while he was president. Working with Nick was an absolute pleasure; his prose communicated his own passions in an accessible manner and he had a keen eye for layout, color, and general aesthetics.

I was always so glad to run into Nick at a SIAM conference. No matter how busy he was, he made time for a quick catch-up session and took a personal interest in everyone with whom he interacted. When he found out that I was engaged to be married, he sent a sweet congratulatory email; he then followed up after the wedding to ask for photos. I felt so touched that he remembered.

It’s difficult to wrap my head around the fact that I won’t be seeing Nick’s friendly face during a coffee break at a future SIAM Annual Meeting. His passing is an enormous loss to both SIAM and the larger applied mathematics community, but the legacy he leaves behind will undoubtedly continue to influence and shape upcoming generations. Nick, you are greatly missed.” Lina Sorg, managing editor, SIAM News

On behalf of the entire SIAM community, we extend our sincere condolences to Nick’s family. This issue of SIAM News also includes an obituary—written by Nick’s brother, Desmond Higham, and his wife, Françoise Tisseur—that overviews Nick’s extraordinary career, accomplishments, and personal interests.

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