Thom, René (Frédéric) 1923-2002

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THOM, René (Frédéric) 1923-2002

OBITUARY NOTICE—See index for CA sketch: Born September 2, 1923, in Montbéliard, France; died of vascular disease October 25, 2002, in Bures-sur-Yvette, France. Mathematician, educator, and author. Thom was a brilliant mathematician who is best remembered for his "catastrophe theory," which was intended to predict catastrophes of all types, from natural disasters to social and political upheavals. He earned his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1951 from the École Normale Superieure in Paris, after which he taught at the University of Grenoble from 1953 to 1954 and at the University of Strasbourg from 1957 to 1963. In 1964 he joined the faculty at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques as a professor. One of Thom's first influential breakthroughs was his theory of cobordism, which is a mathematical system for classifying three-dimensional shapes into higherdimensional analogues. For this work he was awarded the prestigious Fields Medal in 1958. An interest in topology led to Thom's interest in the geometry of the world and his creation of his catastrophe theory which he outlined in Structural Stability and Morphogenesis: An Outline of a General Theory of Models in 1972. The book created a sensation because scientists in many fields thought it could be used to predict—and prevent—all sorts of disasters, ranging from floods and earthquakes to stock market crashes. However, time proved that Thom's theories were not workable in real-world situations. Despite this failure, Thom remained a respected mathematical theorist who also contributed to the fields of linguistics, theoretical biology, and philosophy.



Notable Scientists from 1900 to the Present, second edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.


New York Times, November 10, 2002, p. A35.

Times (London, England), November 15, 2002, p. 41.

Washington Post, November 17, 2002, p. C10.