Sir Vaughan Frederick Randal Jones

December 31, 1952September 6, 2020

Statement from the Family of Sir Vaughan Jones

The Jones family announces with great sorrow the sudden passing of Sir Vaughan Frederick Randal Jones on September 6, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 67 years old. Vaughan is survived by his wife Martha (“Wendy”) Jones, children Bethany Ghassemi (Arash Ghassemi), Ian Jones, and Alice Jones, grandsons Kian and Behnam Ghassemi, sister Tessa Jones, stepmother Fay Macdougall, stepsister Lindy Leuschke, nieces and nephews, and other extended family.

Vaughan was born in Gisborne, New Zealand on December 31, 1952 to parents Jim Jones and Joan Jones (née Collins). He attended St. Peters School and Auckland Grammar School, where he made enduring friendships and developed his lifelong interest in math and science. After graduating from the University of Auckland with a B.Sc. in 1972 and an M.Sc. with First Class Honours in 1973, he was awarded a Swiss Government Scholarship, which enabled him to undertake research in Switzerland. It was in Switzerland, while pursuing his PhD, that he met his future wife, Martha, whom he forever called Wendy. Both graduate students, they met skiing in the village of Engelberg, where the story goes that he intentionally crashed into her. As it happened, they were also both amateur musicians and spent many happy hours singing with the University of Geneva choir. They married in 1979 in Wendy’s home town of Westfield, New Jersey, in a ceremony remembered for their performance of a Mozart piece, Vaughan on the violin and Wendy on the flute. The same year, Vaughan was awarded his Docteur ès Sciences in Mathematics from the University of Geneva, winning him his favorite watch along with the first prize of his professional career, the Prix Vacheron Constantin.

After moving from Switzerland to the United States, taking a position as E.R. Hedrick Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1980-81 and an associate professorship at the University Pennsylvania, he moved to the Mathematical Science Research Institute, Berkeley, California in 1984. He was appointed as a Professor of Mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley in 1985. He and Wendy settled in nearby Piedmont, California, where they raised their three children. In 1990, he was awarded math’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Fields Medal, by the International Congress of Mathematicians in Kyoto, Japan. The work that earned Vaughan this distinction, the discovery of a knot polynomial that became known as the Jones Polynomial, led to further development of fields ranging from particle physics to molecular biology, with practical applications in the understanding of the knotting of DNA.

A happy, humble, gregarious man, Vaughan had limitless passion for life and the people he loved. Although his career involved extensive international commitments, he made his family the center of his world. His acceptance of his Fields Medal in his New Zealand All Blacks rugby jersey is legendary; what is less well-known is that during a reception shortly thereafter, he used his time on the stage to give Wendy a beautiful necklace, a gesture of love and appreciation for her role in his success. To ensure that Vaughan’s career never took him from his family for too long, Vaughan and Wendy took their children all over the world, bringing them to conferences and putting them in local public schools while on sabbaticals abroad. During these journeys, filled with card games, sightseeing, bunking up on sleeper trains, and the adventure of being a family on the road, he and Wendy instilled in their kids a love for travel and a respect for other languages and cultures.

Ever devotees of music, Vaughan and Wendy continued to sing together in choirs, played in the UC Berkeley Mathematics Orchestra every year at commencement, ensured that their children learned to play instruments, and encouraged a household full of singing. Vaughan actively promoted intellectual curiosity and creativity in addition to a strong work ethic, gifting a book of poetry here, sharing math puzzles there, and spending countless evenings regaling his children with bedtime stories. During these sessions he shared his favorite literature, returning frequently to The Hobbit, as well as his gift of storytelling, making up tales with beloved recurring characters such as a tippling Uncle Scrooge, a wingless flying sheep, and a mechanical monster known as the Metagrobolizer. The sheer pleasure he took in exercising his imagination and plugging away at a problem projected an example impossible not to follow.

In his career, Vaughan received many honors in addition to the Fields Medal, including the designation to a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. From the point of view of his family, these distinctions were inseparable from his absolute dedication to his field, his colleagues, and his students. He took every opportunity to use his position and influence for the benefit of others. His charismatic and giving nature lent itself to organizing people to advance the exchange of ideas (including decades of Friday night “beer and pizza” gatherings with graduate students) and his talent for public speaking made his talks celebrated. Yet even as his accolades grew, he remained almost defiantly down-to-earth. In his family retreat in Bodega Bay, California, the only award on the wall is his prized Certificate of Barista Skills, displaying for all the world to see his enthusiasm for the craft of brewing coffee. As much as he loved discussing math, he was just as happy to talk about rugby, which he played in school, golf, or kitesurfing.

As Vaughan’s career progressed, he melded it to his interests. Vaughan relished the outdoors, taking his young children on hikes through the Berkeley and Oakland hills, playing tennis with Wendy and his kids, organizing downhill ski trips, and eventually creating a family golf tournament (complete with a trophy that he vied for good naturedly with his son, nephews and son-in-law). But his greatest outdoor passion was for watersports, first windsurfing and then kitesurfing. His academic work in Knot Theory translated into an interest in physical knots, which he used mostly with his wind and kitesurfing gear, and so he was greatly honored to be made a Vice President of the International Guild of Knot Tyers in 1992. A Kiwi through and through, he organized annual math conferences in New Zealand in his capacity as a founding member of the New Zealand Mathematics Research Institute. Each conference was strategically located at a beach, where daily math seminars led to late afternoon kitesurfing sessions, and mathematicians from near and far were invited to share his love for the water. Vaughan’s annual trips to New Zealand also allowed him to connect with cherished friends for activities on land and sea and to visit his family in New Zealand. Every year, he stopped by homes, farms, and beaches, always ready with a tale of his travels and game to make anyone a cappuccino or flat white. On a recent trip to New Zealand, he and Wendy showed the country to their grandsons, delighting them with summertime Christmas at beach after beach.

In 2011, Vaughan and Wendy moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where Vaughan was appointed as Stevenson Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Wendy as associate professor in the Department of Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University. They enjoyed exploring the southern United States, visiting state parks and exploring caves as they formed bonds with the Vanderbilt community. In May 2019, Vaughan and Wendy returned to Geneva, Switzerland to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary with their children, their extended family, and their dear friends and colleagues.

Vaughan was an exceptional man, in many ways larger than life, to all of us. Our family would like to thank Vaughan’s friends, colleagues, and students. We are deeply grateful for the many ways you fueled Vaughan’s passion for all that you shared. We are also grateful for the warm welcome we have always received from the mathematics community and their families all over the world.

A memorial service at Vanderbilt University will take place at a date to be determined. In lieu of gifts, contributions can be made in Vaughan’s memory to:

• Save the Bay (

• The Vaughan and Martha Jones Graduate Student Support Fund in the Department of Mathematics, University of California, Berkeley (

• The New Zealand Mathematics Research Institute ( Donations can be made by check, bank transfer or credit card. Please contact Mathematics Professor Marston Conder, NZMRI treasurer, for details. Email:

• Mathematics Department, Vanderbilt University. All funds received in memory of Vaughan will be used to support mathematics graduate students and postdocs. Please indicate a donation is in memory of Vaughan Jones. (


Sir Vaughan Frederick Randal Jones

have a memory or condolence to add?

Mark Holmes

December 21, 2020

I only got to know Vaughan in the last decade or so, during his visits to NZ and at a congress in Shanghai, yet I found myself shocked and devastated to hear of his passing. Every time I see someone kite surfing I think of him :)

Vaughan was an incredibly generous person. He helped my career in various ways, and he gave so much to the NZ mathematics community. I have tried to emulate the style of his NZMRI summer meetings when organising my own events (in particular lots of time for excursions etc). I feel very sad that I won't get to chat with him again (and that I missed the opportunity for a duet, as I have only just learned that he liked to sing!), but very fortunate that I got to meet him at all. He was a really great guy.

My deepest sympathies to his family.

Ian Agol

December 20, 2020

I think the last time I saw Vaughan was March 2 during the MSRI program he was organizing, when he gave a talk about some of his mathematical dreams and visions.

I had met Vaughan before joining the faculty at Berkeley, but got to know him better as a fellow faculty member. I'll mention briefly some memories.

As a grad student, hearing about his ideas on triple crossing projections of knots.

I remember during a public lecture he gave at a conference, he drew the Conway and Kinoshita-Terasaka knots from memory, a skill that most knot theory specialists would not be able to accomplish.

Going to lunch with Vaughan and Richard Borcherds and Steve Evans to La Burrita on Euclid each week. They would meet at 11:45 am to beat the lunch rush.

When the department technical typist Faye Yeager retired and wasn't replaced, Vaughan complained that it would halve his mathematical output now that he had to typeset his own math papers.

Kite boarding in Nelson and Bodega, staying over at his place with a hot tub. Having Bodega Bay clam chowder.
Seeing him fly in the air on his kite board over Bodega Bay.

Talking math with him. Being surprised that he could connect Thompson's group with knot theory.

Going to Raleigh's for beer and burgers after his seminar.

Hearing that Wendy had bought him lessons on Latte art at Gaylord's, and that he had become obsessed with it.

Stories that Vanderbilt was wooing him with an endowed chair that included unlimited first class flights around the world (I'm not sure if this was true).

He was in Chile when a very strong quake occurred. When he got back, he told the story of being in a tall building where the shaking was so strong that when he got down on his hands and knees, they got bloodied up from the friction due to the shaking. He was okay but obviously shaken.

I will miss his energy and love of life. It's remarkable that such a great mathematician led such a well-rounded life.

Karl Gustafson

November 10, 2020

Vaughn and I happened to be in India in December, 1992, on different lecture tours when riots swept the country and we found ourselves refugees at the ISI in Delhi. Our friend there, Kalyan Sinha, arranged a driver and tour for us down to Jaipur and Agra. I have written about that in my autobiography The Crossing of Heaven (Springer, 2012). I still have a mystical photo on the wall of the Taj Mahal on a foggy day with nobody but us there.
We had a ball. I still remember Vaughn learning to wrap an Indian turban around his head in the local fashion. I am very sorry to hear of the death of someone who so loved life.

Eliane et Jean-Claude Glück

October 16, 2020

Nous avons eu le bonheur de partager de nombreux moments chaleureux, joyeux et pleins d’émotions avec Vaughan, depuis son arrivée à Genève pour la poursuite de ses études jusqu’au 40ème anniversaire de mariage avec Wendy, fêté également à Genève.
Sans lui et Wendy, nous n’aurions sans doute jamais connu les Etats-Unis qu’ils nous ont fait découvrir à plusieurs occasions.

Son amour pour les fêtes, la nature et la musique nous laisse tant de nombreux souvenirs dont en voici quelques-uns qui restent gravés dans nos mémoires :

- La première fois que nous l’avons vu dans le jardin voisin du nôtre, c’était sous
l’apparence d’un empereur romain déclamant les écrits d’un parchemin, sous le jet d’un
tuyau d’arrosage. A ses côtés Hugo, son colocataire, jouait de la trompette. Il fêtait avec
des amis la réussite d’examens. Cette première rencontre, aussi drôle que surprenante,
fût le début d’une longue amitié.
- Aux 40 ans de Jean-Claude, à l’heure des rangements de la salle de fête, il fit virevolter
Wendy, alors enceinte de Bethany, puis il empoigna les plateaux de tables pour les
ranger en les faisant tourner au-dessus de sa tête.
- Lors d’un des pique-niques derrière la montagne du Vuache que nous partagions entre
famille et amis, il avait pris son violon et nous transmit sa joie de vivre en interprétant
des mélodies variées.
- A la recherche de l’ours dans le parc du Yosemite, en Californie, il entonna de
merveilleux chants lors de nos soirées autour du feu au bord d’un lac où nous campions.

Depuis de nombreuses années, nos retrouvailles furent moins fréquentes mais nous nous réjouissions toujours de revoir Vaughan et sa famille chez nous. Il va beaucoup nous manquer.

Kathy et Florent se joignent à nous pour présenter à Wendy, Bethany, Alice, Ian, leurs enfants et leurs familles nos très sincères condoléances et nous leur souhaitons beaucoup de courage pour surmonter cette terrible séparation.

Bruno Lebayle

October 8, 2020

De Von me reste l’image d’un grand costaud jovial, bronzé en combinaison courte de plongée. Outre les repas de famille et les quelques jours partagés, je garde en mémoire les semaines passées avec mes trois enfants à Piedmont, où Von et sa petite famille nous ont accueillis très chaleureusement. Le souvenir qui m'a le plus marqué est son rire d'enfant pendant la balade en Corvette de location; il a crié de joie lorsque le bolide rouge avalait le bitume sous le chaud soleil, avec le vent sur le visage.
Je me rappelle aussi la balade à pied en Chartreuse, où Von s'est contenté de ses tongs alors que nous avions tous de lourdes chaussures.
Ce qui me reste le plus de lui: simplicité, ouverture, curiosité. Un être brillant est parti.
For me Von remains the big guy in a wet suit, full of smiles and deep laughs. Apart from the several days spent together, I remind the weeks in Piedmont, where Von and his family had warmly hosted twice me and my three kids. The most vivid moment was his big laugh during our ride of a rented Corvette, and his shout of joy when the red roaring car hit the road, sun bathed and wind in the air.
I also remember our mountain walk in Chartreuse, when Von insisted for keeping his flip flop shoes while all of us had heavy mountain shoes.
His best qualities where simplicity, openness and curiosity. A brilliant being has gone.

Thierry Lebayle

September 27, 2020

Vaughan, nos rencontres étaient rares, mais toujours pour moi, fortes d’émotions et de bonheur.
Je garde un souvenir merveilleux de nos 10 jours passés ensemble à Hawaï, de nos sessions de Windsurf mais aussi des discussions que tu avais avec d’anciens élèves dans l’appartement où nous étions. Ton grand charisme, tes passions multiples (les mathématiques, la musique, les watersports, les voyages, le goût pour les bonnes choses comme cette fameuse bière Leffe, etc ....) et ton sens du partage ont été pour moi une joie extraordinaire et un signe d’exemplarité.
Je pense à Wendy que je connais depuis mon adolescence (déjà 40 ans) et qui t’a donné 3 beaux enfants. Je partage avec eux l’immense vide que tu vas laisser. RIP. Thierry

Ian Sinclair

September 26, 2020

I was at Auckland Grammar in the same year as Sir Vaughan.
I remember him vividly. It is hard to believe such an energetic and memorable man has been cut down so early and I would like to express my condolences to a family that obviously adored him.
However it is also wonderful to see that a man whose life was so inspirational, is remembered as a cause for pride as well as grief.
When I was a reporter for Television New Zealand's Holmes Programme I read an article proclaiming him to be one of our greatest kiwis,
The show agreed this brilliant New Zealander needed more recognition, so I filmed Vaughan at the old school, in a classroom, where I got him to recall how he came by his revolutionary knot theory. Using chalk on a blackboard, he explained it in such a clear manner that even I, who failed maths in the fourth form, could understand him! It wasn't hard to see why he would have been a great teacher as well as researcher. The story saw a national audience bear witness to his wonderful achievement on a top rating programme. I would be very happy to contact TVNZ to obtain a copy of this story for his family , the school or a memorial service in Auckland . Come to think of it, I would like a copy anyway . I can be reached at the email above.

Fay Macdougall

September 25, 2020

Vaughan was and always will be a special stepson and I have so many happy memories of him.

I always looked forward to the Vaughan Jones "smile and hug" when we met on his arrival at Auckland Airport on his many trips back to New Zealand.
Coffees, dinners, golf and shared Christmas's and many other family occasions were always such a special time for us.

On a visit to Piedment in 2002, Vaughan emphatically insisted that I learn to use a laptop with his guidance - thank you Vaughan.
He was a loving, caring gentle person to his family and friends and he will always have a special place in my heart.

Alice Guionnet

September 22, 2020

I met Vaughan when I visited Berkeley in 2005. He kindly proposed me to work on a project with him. This was a maths and coffee project: we met a couple of times per week at a coffee shop and there tried to bridge the gap between our two backgrounds. Surprisingly enough to me, it smoothly and happily worked out. Projects with Vaughan were rarely maths alone : it could also be maths and Maui, maths and kitesurfing, maths and NZ… He was not only sharing, with incredible kindness and generosity, his beautiful ideas but in fact his way of life. He was one of a kind, un sacré Mec, an exceptionnal colleague and friend. We already miss him so much.

Marie-Claude David

September 21, 2020

J'ai rencontré Vaughan aux Plans sur Bex, lors de deux écoles d'hiver sur les algèbres d'opérateurs organisées par Pierre De La Harpe à la fin des années 70. Avec son violon et l'aide de Georges Skandalis, il savait mettre de l'ambiance. Si son anglais me semblait bien difficile, son français était excellent jusqu'à lui permettre la lecture d'Achille Talon (bande dessinée de Greg).

Après la naissance de mes deux filles, alors que j'étais en congé pour accompagner mon mari à IAS (Princeton), Olivier Besson m'a signalé la présence de Vaughan à Philadelphie et son article "Index of subfactors". J'ai pu travailler avec Vaughan un jour toutes les deux semaines, il m'a donné un problème et ses conseils ont été déterminants pour me relancer en recherche. Nous avons correspondu par voie postale puis nous nous sommes revus lors de ses séjours à IHES. J'ai pu faire connaissance de Wendy. Nos filles aînées ont fait de la pâtisserie ensemble.

Plus tard Vaughan m'a demandé de faire un rapport sur un article et j'en ai tiré un nouveau problème.

Même face à une grossière erreur, il restait bienveillant et encourageant. C'était aussi un bon vivant. Je suis vraiment triste de son décès et je partage la douleur de Wendy et leurs enfants et de Tessa que nous avons eu la chance d'héberger.