Alexander Aitken

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Alexander Aitken
Born Alexander Craig Aitken
(1895-04-01)1 April 1895
Died 3 November 1967(1967-11-03) (aged 72)
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
University of Otago
Thesis Smoothing of Data
Doctoral advisor E. T. Whittaker[1]
Doctoral students Hamish Anderson
David Bailey
Narbheshanker Bhatt
Alexander Buchan
Nora Calderwood
James Campbell
Edwin Dalziel
Henry Daniels
Henri Gonin
Florence Harding
Robert Hiorns
Alastair Howie
David Hunter
Walter Kibble
Dip Lal
Donald Livingstone
Ragy Makar
John Mott
William Muir
Arthur Rayner
Hans Schneider
Leonard Shenton
Harold Silverstone
Leon Solomon
Hendrik Steyn
John Sutherland[1]
Known for Aitken's array
Aitken's delta-squared process
Notable awards Fellow of the Royal Society[2]

Alexander Craig "Alec" Aitken FRSNZ FRSE FRS[2] (1895–1967) was one of New Zealand's greatest mathematicians.[3][4][5][6][7]

Life and work[edit]

Aitken was born on 1 April 1895 in Dunedin, the eldest of the 7 children of William Aitken and Elizabeth Towers. He was educated at Otago Boys' High School in Dunedin (1908–13) and won the Thomas Baker Calculus Scholarship in his last year at school. He saw active service during World War I with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, at Gallipoli, in Egypt, and at the Western Front. He was wounded at the Somme.

Aitken graduated MA from the University of Otago in 1920, then worked as a schoolmaster at Otago Boys' High School from 1920–3.

Aitken studied for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, where his dissertation, "Smoothing of Data", was considered so impressive that he was awarded a DSc in 1926.[3] Aitken's impact at the University had been so great that he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh the year before the award of his degree, upon the proposal of Sir Edmund Whittaker, Sir Charles Galton Darwin, Edward Copson and David Gibb. Aitken was awarded the Makdougall-Brisbane Prize for 1930-2, and was very active in the affairs of the RSE, serving as Councillor (1934–36), Secretary to Ordinary Meetings (1936–40), and Vice-President (1948–51; 1956-9). He was also an active member of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society and a Fellow of the Faculty of Actuaries.

Aitken spent his entire career at Edinburgh University, working as Lecturer in Actuarial Mathematics & Statistics (1925–36), Reader in Statistics (1936–46), and finally Professor of Mathematics (1946–65).

During World War II he worked in Hut 6 Bletchley Park decrypting ENIGMA code.[8]

Aitken was one of the best mental calculators known, and had a prodigious memory.[3] He knew the first 1000 digits of \pi, the 96 recurring digits of 1/97, and memorised the Aeneid in high school. Unfortunately, his inability to forget the horrors he witnessed in World War I led to recurrent depression throughout his life.

Through his collaboration with Herbert W. Turnbull on a book on canonical matrices (published in 1932), Aitken acquired an Erdős number of 6.

Aitken was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1936[2] for his work in statistics, algebra and numerical analysis. He was an accomplished writer, being elected to the Royal Society of Literature in 1964 in response to the publication of his war memoirs. He was also an excellent musician, being described by Eric Fenby as the most accomplished amateur musician he had ever known, and was a champion athlete in his younger days.

Awards and honours[edit]

An annual "Aitken Prize" is awarded by the New Zealand Mathematical Society for the best student talk at their colloquium. The prize was inaugurated in 1995 at the University of Otago's Aitken Centenary Conference, a joint mathematics and statistics conference held to remember Aitken a hundred years after his birth.

Personal life[edit]

Aitken died on 3 November 1967, in Edinburgh.


  1. ^ a b Alexander Aitken at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  2. ^ a b c Whittaker, J. M.; Bartlett, M. S. (1968). "Alexander Craig Aitken 1895-1967". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 14: 1. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1968.0001.  edit
  3. ^ a b c "Alexander Aitken THE HUMAN COMPUTER". NZ Edge. 
  4. ^ O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Alexander Aitken", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews .
  5. ^ A. C. Aitken (1935). "On Least Squares and Linear Combinations of Observations", Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 55, 42–48.
  6. ^ A. C. Aitken and H. Silverstone (1942). "On the Estimation of Statistical Parameters", Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1942, 61, 186–194.
  7. ^ A. C. Aitken (1963). Gallipoli to the Somme: Recollections of a New Zealand infantryman. Oxford.
  8. ^ "Aitken, Alexander Craig". The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/30357.  edit

Further reading[edit]