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Obituaries: Professor Will Light 

Obituary from the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Robert Burgess:
Will Light had several distinguished careers from the different roles that he took in the University. His career as a Mathematician provided him with a base from which he became a Head of Department Ė a role that involved many careful decisions as he took the department(s) from a grade 1 in the Research Assessment Exercise before he arrived up to a grade 5 in 2001. This alone demonstrates his persistence but also his talent for bringing people together, developing their self-confidence and their expertise. [photo: Professor Will Light]
Will Light

When I arrived in Leicester, Will made it known to me that he wanted to make a contribution to the University beyond his department. First he became a Dean where he was the champion of several new developments. He set up arrangements where departments that recruited additional overseas students would get further posts. He established all the ground work for the development of the Mathematical Modelling Centre Ė thinking about it not only in intellectual but also physical terms so that its members could be appropriately housed. Indeed, as a Dean and subsequently as a Pro-Vice-Chancellor he was a strong advocate of inter-disciplinarity. He also devised a system for establishing secretarial norms in departments Ė a system which is still in use.

It is just under two years ago that he became a Pro-Vice-Chancellor Ė a role that he took on with great distinction and which he performed with energy, enthusiasm and flair. He took the role of PVC for Research and Region and shaped it in a way which made it his own. He played a major role in developing and guiding the Research Committee. It is his plan that set the ground rules for the areas in which the Committee would operate. It was Will who was the advocate of targets for research income which he carefully calculated so that departments could move themselves close to (or more often slightly ahead of) national norms for their subject.

In the region he was a member of the Executive Committee of the East Midlands Universities Association where he took a very active role as he chaired a working group, brought together groups that would be pro-active in developing links between higher education and business and at the time of his death he was promoting ways in which these relationships could be made easier by the use of technology to the advantage of both communities. Locally he worked hard with a group of people from the city, the hospitals and the University to establish the Gene Centre and he was also a strong advocate for a Science Park in Leicester.

Will Light established much in the relatively short time that he was part of the Universityís Senior Management Team. He had the ability to engage in lateral thinking and to put ideas into action. He would also persuade people to follow his example and make a major contribution as he had a very engaging style which meant he could work effectively with many people. In many of these roles he was strongly supported by his wife, Anita, who has also made numerous contributions to the University. It is evident that his was a career with much promise. He was starting to forge new roles nationally in connection with the development of British Higher Education in European work. He would have developed his work and his career in many directions to the benefit of our University, the region and the higher education sector more generally. He was a significant member of the community who would have gone on to take up major roles in Leicester and elsewhere. We have all been deprived of a great talent but are the richer for his friendship, for his support and for the experience of working with him. 

Professor Robert Burgess

Obituary from Professor Rick Thomas, Head of Department of Mathematics and Computer Science:

It was with very great sadness that we learned that Will Light had died suddenly on the evening of Sunday, December 8, 2002 at his home at Illston on the Hill from a heart attack. For everyone who knew Will this was a great shock as well as a devastating blow. He was always so energetic and full of life that it is very hard to appreciate that he has left this world.

Will was born in 1950 in Chester. He took his undergraduate degree at Sussex, where he read for a BSc in Mathematics, graduating in 1972. He then moved to Bangor for a PGCE and was subsequently offered a position as a schoolteacher. However, the lure of the possibility of doing research in Mathematics proved too strong and he went to Lancaster to read for an MA and then a PhD under the supervision of Charles Clenshaw. After he completed his PhD he became a lecturer in Mathematics at Lancaster.

Whilst at Lancaster, Will developed an international reputation for his research. He published papers of a very high quality and formed several collaborations with leading researchers, including Ward Cheney, Rick Beatson and Manfred von Golitschek. We were very fortunate at Leicester, when we advertised a Chair of Applied Mathematics, to be able to secure Willís services, and he joined the University in 1991.

Will joined the Department of Mathematics as Head of Department. He inherited a department which only had nine permanent staff all of whom had been at Leicester for a considerable period of time. At 41 Will was the youngest permanent academic member of staff. The research base was very low. One indication of Willís impact on Leicester is how Applied Mathematics advanced from a Grade 1 in the RAE before Will joined us through to a Grade 5 in the last RAE.

Part of this advance was achieved by Will quickly choosing dynamic and exciting staff to join him here. His judgment was Ďspot oní; of the three young applied mathematicians who arrived at Leicester in Willís first year, Mark Ainsworth is now a Professor at Strathclyde, Marco Marletta a Senior Lecturer at Cardiff and Jeremy Levesley a Senior Lecturer here at Leicester. Will was always very good at spotting talent and he had the strength of character to back his convictions. Both Pure and Applied Mathematics prospered under his leadership and he must take a great deal of the credit for establishing Leicester as one of the leading Mathematics departments in the UK.

Will was not just concerned with the research environment at Leicester. Whilst still at Lancaster, he and John Gilbert started the SERC (later EPSRC) Summer Schools in Numerical Analysis, aimed (amongst other things) at improving the mathematical education of PhD students. These summer schools transferred to Leicester after Will came here and they have played a central role in developing the careers of Numerical Analysts.

Willís research interests were mainly in approximation theory and particularly in the approximation of multivariate functions and data, where the number of independent variables is high. Two fundamental tools for this type of problem are radial functions and ridge functions. Arising from the ridge function aspect is a strong link with the theoretical aspects of neural networks - large parallel computing machines whose architecture is based (in a loose sense) on the human brain. His interests also overlapped into functional analytic questions in approximation theory, particularly those involving tensor products.  He was the author of several books including a research level text with Ward Cheney on Multivariate Approximation Theory.

In addition to his own outstanding research record and his building up of the Mathematics research profile at Leicester, Will was also a very gifted teacher. His lectures were always very clear, often punctuated with moments of informality or humour which the students invariably appreciated. Whilst he particularly enjoyed teaching mathematical analysis, as this related to his own research area and is a subject that is very difficult to convey effectively to undergraduates, he taught a very wide variety of subjects over his career and he was always ready to take on new courses. This ability to teach so well was also a factor in the frequent invitations Will received to be a keynote speaker at leading international conferences; these invitations reflected his wonderful communication skills as well as his own research excellence.

On the University front, one of Willís many other achievements was in helping to continue the establishment of Computer Science as a serious discipline at Leicester. Shortly after his arrival he initiated discussions to merge the departments of Mathematics and Computing Studies into a new Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. Amongst other benefits, this allowed for the establishment of a degree in Computer Science and the ensuing expansion of the Computer Science group. In addition to Mathematics, Computer Science has benefited enormously from Willís support over the last decade.

Will stayed as Head of Department until 1996, overseeing the departmentís teaching and research strategy and making many further excellent appointments. After stepping down as head, he continued to play a very active role in shaping the departmentís future, offering support and advice to subsequent heads, and he remained as the head of the Applied Mathematics research group he had created.

Will was never one to have a strong sense of his own importance. He was always very modest about his own achievements and was never one to Ďstand on ceremonyí. Visitors to the department from countries where the academic systems were rather more hierarchical than ours would find it rather disconcerting to discover that the great mathematician they had come to visit was being teased by his colleagues and, in addition, was often telling jokes at his own expense.

Will was very generous by nature and had time for everyone no matter whatever their role or position in the University. Whilst he could be firm when necessary, he was never unkind nor would he harbour resentment when people disagreed with him. If there was a matter to be decided, Will would engage in a full and frank discussion; then, when that debate was over, the slate was wiped clean and we would go on to the next issue that needed to be considered.

In 1998 Will became Dean of the Faculty of Science and then Pro-Vice-Chancellor. The Vice-Chancellor has written about Willís work in these areas. Will still continued to play an active role in departmental affairs, however, and, amongst his other achievements, he was the person most responsible for the establishment of the Centre for Mathematical Modelling in which his department plays a major role.

Willís interests were not confined to the University and Mathematics. He had a pilotís licence and he would take colleagues on flights with him either for the pure fun of it or to actually go somewhere. He was an enthusiastic skier, and he had also been an amateur racing cyclist earlier in his life and also a keen badminton player. With his wife Anita, whom he met on a rock-climbing expedition while a student at Sussex, he built two houses (one in Lancaster and one in Leicester), sometimes engaging the assistance of young lecturers or PhD students for the less cerebral aspects of the construction. He was an invaluable source of information to members of the department on a wide range of topics ranging from the finer points of approximation theory through to the practical issues of plumbing. Most importantly for Will, he and Anita were committed Christians, and Will often preached himself. 

Willís funeral was held at Holy Trinity Church, on the corner of Regent Road and Upper King Street, on Monday, December 16, 2002. The church was packed with friends, relatives and colleagues who had come to pay their respects. The size and mood of the congregation, and all the comments made, were ample testament to the high esteem in which we all held Will. We have lost a highly valued colleague and a very good friend.

Professor Rick Thomas

[Photo: close-up of presentation envelope] Donation in memory of Professor Will Light
In February, Mrs Anita Light presented a cheque for a total of £2,000 - collected from family and friends - to HEARTSEARCH, in memory of her husband, Professor Will Light, who died on Sunday, December 8, 2002, to Professor Nilesh Samani, Head of Cardiology Division. Also pictured (centre back) is Professor Ian Lauder, Dean, Leicester Warwick Medical Schools, Mr H Ghelani, HEARTSEARCH (left) and Mr S Singh. [Photo: Mrs Lights presents a cheque to Professor Samani. University staff (including Dean of Leicester Warwick Medical Schools) and HEARTSEARCH representative present.]

Professor Will Light: Vice-Chancellor's tribute

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Last updated: 16 April 2003 11:50
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