Prominent Iranian mathematician Professor Abolghassem Ghaffari passed away on the night of Tuesday November 5, 2013, at the age of 106. Less than a month earlier, at the ceremony for the first Spirit of Iranian Noted Achievers (SINA) Awards recognizing the contributions of outstanding Iranians to the arts, science and culture, Professor Ghaffari was a recipient of the prestigious award.
The award was established by a group of Iranian professors and scholars at Harvard, MIT and other Boston-based universities. Other winners of the first SINA Awards and inductees to the Hall of Fame included Bahram Beyzaie, Mahmoud Farshchian, Ehsan Yarshater and Jalil Shahnaz.
Abolghassem Ghafari was born in Tehran in 1906, studied at Darolfonoon School and was part of the first group of Iranian students sent to study in France. He pursued his masters in mathematics at France’s Nancy University and obtained his PhD in mathematics from Sorbonne with a PhD thesis entitled “Brownian Motion from the Perspective of Advanced Mathematics”, which led to his meeting with Albert Einstein. Brownian motion was also the topic of one of Einstein’s five articles in 1905.
In addition to teaching at the Universities of Tehran, Princeton, Harvard and Washington, Ghaffari was the first Iranian to find his way into NASA and the only foreign national involved in the orbital calculations of the Apollo 11 project at NASA’s Goddard Space Centre. He even received the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal for the Apollo 11 project from Richard Nixon, the U.S. president at the time. He went on to receive the Royal Homayoon Medal as well as the Medals of Science and Gratitude from Iranian monarch Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
Despite his many achievements in the field of science, Ghaffari was not well known in the Iranian community and had often made efforts to correct media misrepresentations of his biography and history. Ghaffari was active throughout his life as a member of the Iranian National Commission for UNESCO, the New York Academy of Sciences, the Washington Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the London Mathematical Society and the U.S. Astronomical Society. Later in life, he avidly pursued recent developments in string theory.
It is noteworthy that when Ghaffari’s collaborated with Einstein for a few months at the Princeton Centre for Advanced Studies, their work revolved around the central formulation of equations of unified field theory, which today remains a hot topic of the scientific community’s discussion of string and loop quantum gravity theories.
Professor Ghaffari’s daughter, Vida Ghaffari, announced that one of her father’s chief desires was to establish a bursary for Iranian students of mathematics and science and she added that a bursary in Professor Ghaffari’s name will be soon set up for this purpose.
Short video message of Ghaffari to the SINA Award jury, October 2013