Who was Amir Aczel?
Amir D. Aczel was a well-known writer of books on science and mathematical topics for the general reading public. He began his career as a professor of statistics and mathematics, first in California, next in Alaska, and finally in Massachusetts, and published two university textbooks on statistics. His passion to teach and introduce others to the beauty of mathematics and science led him to begin writing books for a general audience. His subjects ranged from the search for the Higgs boson to the history of the compass, but he was particularly passionate about sharing his love for the mysteries—and glories—of mathematics. In the early 1990s, Amir heard the remarkable news that Andrew Wiles had found a proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem, a theorem that mathematicians hadn’t believed could be proved. Amir was thrilled and wanted to bring an understanding of this difficult mathematical topic to as wide an audience as possible. This led to a long career writing books to make the world of obscure mathematics accessible.
His final book took him on a journey to uncover the origins of numbers as we use them in mathematics. Finding Zero details his search for an ancient stele containing an inscription with the oldest zero ever found. Originally discovered in a cave n Cambodia in the 1930s by French archaeologist George Coedes, who deciphered the text, this stele (recorded as K127) was thought by many people to have been destroyed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Amir rediscovered—and
brought attention to—this important artifact as the culmination of his search for the origins of zero. During his visits to Cambodia and through his research, he fell in love with the country—its culture and people. His vision was to ensure that Cambodians and visitors alike could learn the story of the Khmer Zero and that K127 should be displayed prominently in the museum he loved: the Cambodian National Museum in Phnom Penh.
When the stele was originally discovered and written about in archaeology journals, the academic world could not believe that this invention had truly originated in South East Asia. They felt it had to have a western origin—likely from Greece, either transmitted directed or brought by Arab traders. But scholars now accept that it truly is of Khmer origin.
Cambodia has had a difficult history. During the period of the Khmer Rough an estimated x number of people were murdered, and the educational system was decimated. For these reasons, Amir was doubly committed to bringing attention to the importance of the stele as well as encouraging mathematical research and education among Cambodians. To these ends, he hoped to work toward placement of the stele in the national museum, and further, to plan an international colloquium on mathematics to take place in Phnom Penh to both showcase the glories of Khmer culture to an international community and to provide encouragement to your Cambodians to pursue education and research in mathematics.
Amir D. Aczel died on November 26, 2015, at age 65 in Nimes, France. Amir’s passion for life touched all those who knew him personally and those who only knew him through his work. The Amir D. Aczel Foundation for Research and Education in Science and Mathematics, Inc., has been established to ensure that work he cared about continues.