William Thurston

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William Thurston
William Thurston.jpg
William Thurston in 1991
William Paul Thurston

(1946-10-30)October 30, 1946
Washington, D.C., United States
DiedAugust 21, 2012(2012-08-21) (aged 65)
Rochester, New York, United States
Alma materNew College of Florida
University of California, Berkeley
Known forThurston's geometrization conjecture
Thurston's theory of surfaces
Milnor–Thurston kneading theory
AwardsFields Medal (1982)
Oswald Veblen Prize in Geometry (1976)
Alan T. Waterman Award (1979)
National Academy of Sciences (1983)
Leroy P. Steele Prize (2012).
Scientific career
InstitutionsCornell University
University of California, Davis
Mathematical Sciences Research Institute
University of California, Berkeley
Princeton University
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Institute for Advanced Study
Doctoral advisorMorris Hirsch
Doctoral studentsRichard Canary
Benson Farb
David Gabai
William Goldman
Steven Kerckhoff
Yair Minsky
Igor Rivin
Oded Schramm
Richard Schwartz
Danny Calegari

William Paul Thurston (October 30, 1946 – August 21, 2012) was an American mathematician. He was a pioneer in the field of low-dimensional topology. In 1982, he was awarded the Fields Medal for his contributions to the study of 3-manifolds. From 2003 until his death he was a professor of mathematics and computer science at Cornell University.

Mathematical contributions[edit]


His early work, in the early 1970s, was mainly in foliation theory. His more significant results include:

In fact, Thurston resolved so many outstanding problems in foliation theory in such a short period of time that it led to an exodus from the field, where advisors counselled students against going into foliation theory,[1] because Thurston was "cleaning out the subject" (see "On Proof and Progress in Mathematics", especially section 6[2]).

The geometrization conjecture[edit]

His later work, starting around the mid-1970s, revealed that hyperbolic geometry played a far more important role in the general theory of 3-manifolds than was previously realised. Prior to Thurston, there were only a handful of known examples of hyperbolic 3-manifolds of finite volume, such as the Seifert–Weber space. The independent and distinct approaches of Robert Riley and Troels Jørgensen in the mid-to-late 1970s showed that such examples were less atypical than previously believed; in particular their work showed that the figure-eight knot complement was hyperbolic. This was the first example of a hyperbolic knot.

Inspired by their work, Thurston took a different, more explicit means of exhibiting the hyperbolic structure of the figure-eight knot complement. He showed that the figure-eight knot complement could be decomposed as the union of two regular ideal hyperbolic tetrahedra whose hyperbolic structures matched up correctly and gave the hyperbolic structure on the figure-eight knot complement. By utilizing Haken's normal surface techniques, he classified the incompressible surfaces in the knot complement. Together with his analysis of deformations of hyperbolic structures, he concluded that all but 10 Dehn surgeries on the figure-eight knot resulted in irreducible, non-Haken non-Seifert-fibered 3-manifolds. These were the first such examples; previously it had been believed that except for certain Seifert fiber spaces, all irreducible 3-manifolds were Haken. These examples were actually hyperbolic and motivated his next theorem.

Thurston proved that in fact most Dehn fillings on a cusped hyperbolic 3-manifold resulted in hyperbolic 3-manifolds. This is his celebrated hyperbolic Dehn surgery theorem.

To complete the picture, Thurston proved a hyperbolization theorem for Haken manifolds. A particularly important corollary is that many knots and links are in fact hyperbolic. Together with his hyperbolic Dehn surgery theorem, this showed that closed hyperbolic 3-manifolds existed in great abundance.

The geometrization theorem has been called Thurston's Monster Theorem, due to the length and difficulty of the proof. Complete proofs were not written up until almost 20 years later. The proof involves a number of deep and original insights which have linked many apparently disparate fields to 3-manifolds.

Thurston was next led to formulate his geometrization conjecture. This gave a conjectural picture of 3-manifolds which indicated that all 3-manifolds admitted a certain kind of geometric decomposition involving eight geometries, now called Thurston model geometries. Hyperbolic geometry is the most prevalent geometry in this picture and also the most complicated. The conjecture was proved by Grigori Perelman in 2002–2003.[3][4]

Orbifold theorem[edit]

In his work on hyperbolic Dehn surgery, Thurston realized that orbifold structures naturally arose. Such structures had been studied prior to Thurston, but his work, particularly the next theorem, would bring them to prominence. In 1981, he announced the orbifold theorem, an extension of his geometrization theorem to the setting of 3-orbifolds. Two teams of mathematicians around 2000 finally finished their efforts to write down a complete proof, based mostly on Thurston's lectures given in the early 1980s in Princeton. His original proof relied partly on Richard S. Hamilton's work on the Ricci flow.

Education and career[edit]

Thurston was born in Washington, D.C. to a homemaker and an aeronautical engineer. He received his bachelor's degree from New College (now New College of Florida) in 1967.[5] For his undergraduate thesis he developed an intuitionist foundation for topology. Following this, he earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972. His Ph.D. advisor was Morris Hirsch and his dissertation was on Foliations of Three-Manifolds which are Circle Bundles.[6]

After completing his Ph.D., he spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study,[7] then another year at MIT as Assistant Professor. In 1974, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University. He and his first wife, Rachel Findley, had three children: Dylan, Nathaniel, and Emily.[8] Thurston later remarried, and in 2003 he and his family moved to Ithaca, New York, where he became Professor of Mathematics at Cornell University.

His Ph.D. students include Danny Calegari, Richard Canary, David Gabai, William Goldman, Benson Farb, Richard Kenyon, Steven Kerckhoff, Yair Minsky, Igor Rivin, Oded Schramm, Richard Schwartz, William Floyd, and Jeffrey Weeks.[9] His son Dylan Thurston is a professor of mathematics at Indiana University.

In later years Thurston widened his attention to include mathematical education and bringing mathematics to the general public. He has served as mathematics editor for Quantum Magazine, a youth science magazine, and was one of the founders of The Geometry Center. As director of Mathematical Sciences Research Institute from 1992 to 1997, he initiated a number of programs designed to increase awareness of mathematics among the public.

In 2005 Thurston won the first AMS Book Prize, for Three-dimensional Geometry and Topology. The prize "recognizes an outstanding research book that makes a seminal contribution to the research literature".[10]

In 2012, Thurston was awarded the Leroy P. Steele Prize by the AMS for seminal contribution to research. The citation described his work as having "revolutionized 3-manifold theory".[11]

He died on August 21, 2012 in Rochester, New York, of a sinus mucosal melanoma that was diagnosed in 2011.[8][12][13]

Thurston and his family had been in the process of moving back to Davis, California, where he was to rejoin the mathematics faculty at UC Davis while his wife completed her veterinary medical degree. Thurston died before he could make the move to California. He had remained with his brother George in Rochester, New York, while his family went ahead of him to California to get settled, waiting for him to gain better physical strength for making the cross-country trip to California to join them. Thurston's health declined rapidly, and the family returned to Rochester to be with him during his final days.

Selected works[edit]

  • William Thurston, The geometry and topology of three-manifolds, Princeton lecture notes (1978–1981).
  • William Thurston, Three-dimensional geometry and topology. Vol. 1. Edited by Silvio Levy. Princeton Mathematical Series, 35. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1997. x+311 pp. ISBN 0-691-08304-5
  • William Thurston, Hyperbolic structures on 3-manifolds. I. Deformation of acylindrical manifolds. Ann. of Math. (2) 124 (1986), no. 2, 203–246.
  • William Thurston, Three-dimensional manifolds, Kleinian groups and hyperbolic geometry, Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. (N.S.) 6 (1982), 357–381.
  • William Thurston, On the geometry and dynamics of diffeomorphisms of surfaces. Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. (N.S.) 19 (1988), no. 2, 417–431
  • Epstein, David B. A.; Cannon, James W.; Holt, Derek F.; Levy, Silvio V. F.; Paterson, Michael S.; Thurston, William P. Word Processing in Groups. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Boston, Massachusetts, 1992. xii+330 pp. ISBN 0-86720-244-0[14]
  • Eliashberg, Yakov M.; Thurston, William P. Confoliations. University Lecture Series, 13. American Mathematical Society, Providence, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, 1998. x+66 pp. ISBN 0-8218-0776-5
  • William Thurston, On proof and progress in mathematics. Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. (N.S.) 30 (1994) 161–177
  • William P. Thurston, "Mathematical education". Notices of the AMS 37:7 (September 1990) pp 844–850

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Mathematical Legacy of William Thurston (1946-2012)".
  2. ^ Thurston, William P. (April 1994). "On Proof and Progress in Mathematics". Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. 30 (2): 161–177. arXiv:math/9404236. Bibcode:1994math......4236T. doi:10.1090/S0273-0979-1994-00502-6.
  3. ^ Perelman, Grisha (2003-03-10). "Ricci flow with surgery on three-manifolds". arXiv:math/0303109.
  4. ^ Kleiner, Bruce; Lott, John (2008-11-06). "Notes on Perelman's papers". Geometry & Topology. 12 (5): 2587–2855. arXiv:math/0605667. doi:10.2140/gt.2008.12.2587. ISSN 1364-0380.
  5. ^ "Home | Cornell Chronicle".
  6. ^ "William Thurston - the Mathematics Genealogy Project".
  7. ^ "Institute for Advanced Study: A Community of Scholars". Ias.edu. Retrieved 2013-09-06.
  8. ^ a b Leslie Kaufman (August 23, 2012). "William P. Thurston, Theoretical Mathematician, Dies at 65". New York Times. p. B15.
  9. ^ "William Thurston - the Mathematics Genealogy Project".
  10. ^ "William P. Thurston Receives 2005 AMS Book Prize". Retrieved 2008-06-26.
  11. ^ "AMS prize booklet 2012" (PDF).
  12. ^ "Department mourns loss of friend and colleague, Bill Thurston", Cornell University
  13. ^ Obituary from American Mathematical Society
  14. ^ Reviews of Word Processing in Groups: B. N. Apanasov, Zbl 0764.20017; Gilbert Baumslag, Bull. AMS, doi:10.1090/S0273-0979-1994-00481-1; D. E. Cohen, Bull LMS, doi:10.1112/blms/25.6.614; Richard M. Thomas, MR1161694

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]