A tribute to Stephen Siklos (1950-2019)

Stephen Siklos’s untimely death in August 2019 aged 69 deprives Newnham of a much-loved colleague. In his 19 years with us he was central to the college community, touching the lives of academic colleagues, administrative staff in all departments and influencing and guiding generations of Newnham students. Every College has its own peculiar culture, and Newnham is no exception. Stephen’s penetrating but understated intelligence meant that he very quickly understood the idioms of Newnham, anticipated where he could contribute, and did so without calling attention to it.

Stephen was an undergraduate at Cambridge, coming through the state secondary education sector to read maths at Pembroke College. He taught for a year at Dulwich College before returning to do a PhD with Stephen Hawking, followed by postdoctoral work in London and Oxford. He came to Newnham as College Lecturer and Director of Studies in Mathematics in 1980. An excellent obituary, including some detail on his mathematical contributions, can be found on the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology website.

But it is his personal qualities which have left the deepest impression on people. In the many tributes to Stephen that the College has received, the quality most consistently mentioned is his quiet, wry sense of humour. Humour was always close to the surface with him, and his sudden wide smile was a familiar sight. He was a master of waiting for the right moment to tell a story or a joke, taking great pleasure in delivering his carefully-worded punchline.

College lecturer, Dr Stephen Siklos (1950-2019), photographed by Dorothy Hahn early in his Newnham career

Outside academic life, Stephen took deep satisfaction from his interests in bridge (in which he was more accomplished than he normally admitted), tennis and music (he played the violin, and latterly the viola, with friends and family). Music remained centrally important to him right to the end of his life; he chose the music which so beautifully complemented the addresses and readings at his funeral.

Underlying everything he did, although often concealed by his low-key and unassuming manner, were meticulous preparation, hard work, and uncompromisingly high standards. These qualities were particularly evident in his scholarly work and in his contributions to teaching and outreach, including the widely-acclaimed book Advanced problems in mathematics he wrote for use in schools, to encourage aspiring mathematicians.

Colleagues and former students alike all stress his outstanding qualities as an inspirational teacher, recognised by the University with the award of a Pilkington Teaching Prize in 1999. Stephen’s unfailing care and warmth made supervisions and other sessions not only constructive but also great fun. He was encouraging and supportive, knowing just when a kind or helpful word was needed, and took care to deliver it. He also knew exactly how hard to push each student, and how much gentle ribbing was appropriate. He was always kind, seeing the best in even the most difficult people, and was especially good with the under-confident. Any advice or guidance he gave was based on very careful observation and deep understanding; one former student commented that ‘he knew me better than I knew myself’.

Stephen’s many friends and admirers will smile as they recall their own special memories of him, but a common thread may be summarised in the words of one speaker at his funeral: Stephen Siklos was a gentle man, and a gentleman.

Dr Claire Y Barlow, President of the SCR