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June 12, 2008

Obituary: Jacob N. Burbea

Pitt mathematics professor Jacob N. Burbea died June 3, 2008, at UPMC Shadyside of complications from lung disease. He was 66.

Burbea’s area of expertise was in mathematical analysis. Colleague Frank Beatrous said geometric function theory, several complex variables, vortex dynamics, information theory and operator theory were among the areas in which Burbea’s work had impact.

“Maybe beyond what he knew,” Beatrous said, noting that Burbea’s work — including some areas of math in which he was no longer active — continues to be referenced by mathematicians.

Burbea was particularly adept in drawing connections among different areas of mathematics, Beatrous said. “He was very generous with his time and with his ideas. He had good insight and intuition that I benefited a lot from over the years.”

Burbea earned his bachelor’s degree at Hebrew University, a master’s degree at the Weizmann Institute of Sciences in Israel and a PhD from Stanford University.

He came to Pitt’s mathematics department in 1976 and periodically served as a visiting faculty member and collaborator at a number of other institutions worldwide including in Italy, Israel, Germany, Sweden, Brazil, Spain, Korea, France and Canada.

Burbea frequently traveled to Israel, both for professional reasons and to visit family, Beatrous said, adding that Burbea considered Israel his home and was buried there.

Beatrous, the mathematics department’s undergraduate director, said Burbea had very high expectations of his students and was uncompromising in his expectations. “Some students appreciated that aspect … and some did not,” Beatrous said.

Burbea’s health precluded him from teaching during the 2008 academic year but he drew universally positive reviews from students who took his honors analysis course in spring 2007, Beatrous said, noting that the class attracted some of the most talented math-oriented students from the department and beyond.

“He was very good with working with the very best undergraduate students,” Beatrous said.

Math department colleague Christopher Lennard, a longtime friend, said that Burbea immediately welcomed him with “friendship, companionship and support” when Lennard first arrived in Pittsburgh in 1988.

“He had a gift for humor and anecdote and a great love of strong black coffee and cigarettes. These were equally essential to his social interactions and his mathematical research, in both of which he engaged with gusto, joy and passion,” Lennard recalled.

“He had a unique way of looking at the world that involved great insight into people and situations around him. In mathematics, he was a great advocate of understanding a problem through stepping back and gaining an overview, summarized in his frequent advice: ‘Be wise, be wise, generalize.’”

Burbea is survived by his wife, Claire Moss Burbea; daughter Michelle Burbea Hoffman; son Jonathan P. Burbea, and six siblings.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, 5743 Bartlett St., Pittsburgh 15217.

Plans for a memorial event in the mathematics department are incomplete, Beatrous said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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