Sir Vaughan Frederick Randal Jones

December 31, 1952September 6, 2020
Obituary of Sir Vaughan Frederick Randal Jones
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. (

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