In memoriam: George Hagedorn, professor emeritus of mathematics
George A. Hagedorn, professor emeritus in the Department of Mathematics, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, died March 4. He was 69.
Born in Santa Monica, California, in 1953, Hagedorn would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from Cornell University in 1974 and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Princeton University in, respectively, 1975 and 1978. From there, he worked as a research associate at The Rockefeller University before joining the Virginia Tech community in 1980.
In the Department of Mathematics, Hagedorn’s scholarship contributed to the understanding of mathematics, physics, and chemistry through his work on semiclassical analysis of molecular dynamics. His research received 32 years of National Science Foundation funding, from the mid-1980s to 2015, the year after he retired. He also served as director of the Center for Statistical Mechanics, Mathematical Physics, and Theoretical Chemistry.
His research primarily focused on molecular dynamics and work related to Born-Oppenheimer equations, the acclaimed mathematical approximation in molecular dynamics. Alex Elgart, a fellow professor of mathematics, said, “George … is a household name in mathematical physics and quantum chemistry for pioneering semiclassical methods to study time-dependent Schrödinger operators, as well as his impact on the development of time-dependent Born-Oppenheimer theory and adiabatic theory for quantum systems. A class of generalized coherent states, often used nowadays to numerically solve the standard Schrödinger equation, is named Hagedorn wave packets after him.” The Born-Oppenheimer theory derives its name from famed scientists Max Born and J. Robert Oppenheimer
Hagedorn published more than 70 papers and presented his work in more than 100 lectures in 18 countries on five continents. He was nominated for the American Physical Society’s Dannie Heineman Prize in Mathematical Physics, which recognizes outstanding publications in the field of mathematical physics. He was a member of the American Mathematical Society and the International Association of Mathematical Physicists.
In the classroom, Hagedorn taught a wide variety of both undergraduate and graduate level courses.
“As a teacher, George regularly took high-effort class assignments because they had the most impact,” said Peter Haskell, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics. “During a period when we often had trouble getting sufficient enrollment in functional analysis, George taught the class. Not only was enrollment healthy for the full year, but the students petitioned the department for a third semester. George made this encore performance suitably challenging. Students submitted 20-page homework solutions, George graded those, and students and teacher seemed delighted with the experience.”
Haskell also recalled a humorous story about Hagedorn. “Early in George’s time at Virginia Tech, frugal as always, George stayed at a youth hostel when he went to a conference in Europe. That saved a lot of lodging expense but required him to pay 10 centimes when he took a shower. Virginia Tech wouldn’t reimburse the shower,” Haskell said. “George never forgot.”
Hagedorn was honored with the title of professor emeritus by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors in 2014. In 2019, he was feted with a “Hagedorn Fest” hosted by the Department of Mathematics and fellow colleagues, some traveling from out of country. “Around 40 people participated, with 24 giving talks,” Elgart said.
Hagedorn’s widow, MaryEllen Jones, remembered her husband as “the most devoted of dog lovers, especially favoring Saint Bernards, but he still put up with my own devotion to noisy little Shetland sheepdogs, even allowing me to build our dream home for rescue and rehoming dozens of them.” They were married in 1993.
Roanoke CBS affiliate WDBJ featured Hagedorn and Jones in a December 2020 story about Jones organizing a visit from a Saint Bernard named Sully that is a “member” of the Blacksburg Rescue Squad. At the time, Hagedorn was receiving medical treatment at Kroontje Health Center in Blacksburg. Because of then-COVID pandemic, Jones could not see Hagedorn in person.
“There are other ways they rescue people in need, and this was one of them. It doesn’t get that much attention, but they are always there for us one way or another,” Jones told WDBJ.
Jones also recalled Hagedorn as an avid road bike enthusiast and mountain climber. “He climbed all of the Colorado 14ers, many of the 13ers, and even summited Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, the ‘Mount Everest of the Southern Hemisphere,’” she said. “As an experienced wilderness hiker, he could find his way around without street signs or GPS to guide him. He even led us back to civilization when we were lost in the Australian Bush Country.”
Hagedorn is also survived by a son, Charles Hagedorn.