We are very sad to announce that Dr Simon Altmann passed away at the age of 98 on 29 September 2022. He died peacefully with his family.
Simon had been Tutor in Mathematical Physics 1964-1991 and then Vice Principal 1989-1990, becoming an Emeritus Fellow of the College in 1991. He will be much missed by the College community.
His funeral was held on Monday 31st October 2022 in Brasenose Chapel, according to his wishes.
A recording of the service is now available to view online - please click on the image below.
College Tribute to Dr Simon Altmann
(Text of Principal John Bowers's speech, which was read during the service)
Simon was a mathematician turned physicist. He started teaching for us in 1960 and became a Lecturer in 1962 and a Fellow in 1964. Simon broke barriers on his appointment as the first Tutor for Graduates in 1971 (and in this role he had great influence on the transformation of the HCR). He ended his career as Vice Principal as long ago as 1990. For me he epitomises Brasenose being open to world; he was welcomed into our college community and then was welcoming to others. He was a polymath, a family man. He was passionate as only South Americans can be.
Simon’s great grandfather took the same journey from Russia just 25 years before my family did (probably for the same reason); my family went to Grimsby, his took the more adventurous route to join the settlement of Baron Hirsch in Argentina in 1880.
John Peach with whom he taught for many years said of Simon on his retirement, in a piece he wrote in The Brazen Nose, “he is entirely without rancour, and his principles are held with no dogmatism or intolerance for others, firm and fixed through they be for him”.
I have only known him since I came back to Oxford 7 years ago as Principal but we had many chats about his history, my history, his views of the world, his family, and the gym we both went to (he was still doing personal training in his nineties; I was trying to keep up with him!) It was a mark of the effect he had on people that some of the personal trainers expressed their condolences on hearing of his death.
I think of him as always having had a sparkle in his eye. He attended dinners here almost to the end of his life. I was touched that he gave me a copy of A Tale of Three Countries, his loosely autobiographical work published in 2015 (The loosely veiled St Chads is our own dear Brasenose). The book records how he was briefly imprisoned for student activities; how he resisted Peron and how he was persuaded to stand for the University Council of Buenos Aires when it was a hot bed between leftists and rightists which was difficult for him to navigate.
He taught generations of students including one Edwina Cohen who became known as Edwina Currie. One unnamed student said of him “I always felt that having Dr Altmann to teach people like me was like using a Rolls Royce to collect the groceries!”.
Latterly he was our “Father of the House” in the college. Three years ago I wrote in my blog:
“Keeping track of Simon Altmann is difficult because he is flying all over the world in his nineties. On 22 November he (recently) went to La Sapienza, Rome to lecture on Science and Art. On his return he flew to Madrid, where he had been asked to address a conference organized by the Universidad Complutense (on ‘Images from the Prado’) on the subject of the Prado Annunciations. He also tells me that he is currently working on a very interesting problem on syncretism in C16 Italy, which nicely connects in with the subject (if not in the period) with the current exhibition at the Ashmolean”.
He chuckled at that. His interests were broad and expansive right to the end. We will miss him.
Te extranare mucho
Estabas unico - una persona excepcional
John Bowers KC, Principal
The Guardian obituary
The Guardian have published an obituary of Dr Altmann by Andrew Coulson, which can be found on their website here.
Tributes to Dr Simon Altmann (1924-2022)
Some alumni and friends have been kind enough to share their memories of Simon. They are listed below.
What a sad loss for the college and his family - but what a grand old age he lived to! I’m so honoured to have been one of his students - the last intake before he retired in 1991, I think.
I’ll always remember him telling me that I should think of him (in his role of mathematical physics tutor) as a driving instructor! I gave him a quizzical look that only an eighteen-year old could… and he explained further: He could teach me the basics but it was up to me to become Fangio (which was definitely a nod to his Argentinian heritage)!
I absolutely loved that quote and have used it frequently since then in a variety of teachable moments! A gift from Dr. Altmann that will keep on giving for the rest of my life, for sure, and one that I hope my own children will take to heart as well!
Dr Robert K. Griffiths (Physics, 1990)
News like this is always sad, but a peaceful death at home with family at the age of 98 sounds like the proverbial “good innings”.
Simon (“Professor Calculus”) Altman was a delightful man, who taught me maths, one-on-one, in my first year of physics at BNC. The step up from school maths was rather challenging for this average student, but his kindly manner and helpful explanations reduced the terror to almost manageable levels. I remember him fondly, as I’m sure my physics contemporaries do too. My condolences to his family.
Iain Garden (Physics, 1977)
I am very sorry to hear that Simon Altmann has died. Thank you for informing me.
Dr Altman was my tutor in Mathematical Physics from 1965 to 1968 and the senior member of College with whom I had the most contact during my Physics degree. I remember him with fondness - he was both an excellent tutor and always helpful in academic and personal matters alike. I was invited to his house on a number of occasions, as were other Physics students, and I also remember his wife, Bocca, who helped to make us all feel welcome. They were both generous and amusing hosts.
Professor David Turner (Physics, 1965)
Thank you for informing me about Dr Altmann's recent passing.
I was always grateful for his patience and tuition in helping me get through Mods.
I found the heavy mathematical content in the first year of my physics course quite a challenge to face at that time, along with living away from home and settling in to 'Oxford life'.
Please pass on my condolences to his family.
Michael Birtwistle (Physics, 1980)
Thank you very much for this very sad news.
I knew Simon, and his wife Bocha, and I worked with him between 1967 and 1975 while I was studying at the Department of Engineering Science, but also on a project to enhance the HCR accommodation.
We had a mutual interest in fine art, apart from physics and engineering.
With very best wishes to you and condolences to all Simon’s family...
Dr Michael Watts (Physics & Engineering, 1968)
I am sorry to hear of Simon Altmann's demise. I shall remember him for his kind and patient teaching style.
Julian Wright (Physics, 1975)
Thank you for sending this.
I will always remember Simon with great affection. He was an inspiring teacher who had huge belief in his students. He was not only a gifted physicist and mathematician but deeply cultured, with a great appreciation for the arts and a warm personality.
Peter Ewing (Physics, 1983)
This is indeed profoundly sad news for me.
Simon Altmann was my physics tutor from the moment I arrived at BNC in the autumn of 1965, until I left for the US in 1968. He was an inspiring teacher, always conveying the importance of focussing on the most fundamental questions. And my pre-finals decision to transition from studying physics at Oxford to studying philosophy (including philosophy of physics) at Yale and Cornell universities, was a decision of which he thoroughly approved.
We stayed in touch over the years. He attended a talk (on the nature of truth) that I gave at the University of Connecticut. And I was honored and delighted to receive a message from him just last April, asking if I would comment on a paper he was writing about Einstein's resistance to Quantum Mechanics. What followed was a wonderfully stimulating (for me) exchange of emails. But your news reminded me that he expressed an urgent need to complete a final version of the paper, since, as he put it, he was an old man and didn't have much time.
My heartfelt condolences to his children.
Professor Paul Horwich (Physics, 1965)
Simon was my tutor for the Theoretical option in my third year and also invited me to explore the Metallurgy Department for a suitable DPhil topic - which did become my choice.
Dr J Paul Coad (Physics, 1965)
I have lovely memories of Dr Altmann from my time at Brasenose. He was a superb tutor and a lovely person with incredibly wide interests. He explained and helped with learning the maths associated with physics, which was non-trivial stuff to us undergraduates. I also remember some of the modern art he persuaded the college to buy. He also had a real care for the people in his charge and I remember his careful support in helping me make the next steps beyond BNC.
Steve Kille (Physics, 1975)
I am very sorry to hear of Simon’s passing. He and Dr Peach were my 2 Tutors when I was an undergraduate between 1969 and 1972 and I learned a lot from him.
I vividly remember at the end of Michaelmas Term 1969 he sat me down and told me I was having too good a time at Oxford and needed to concentrate much more on my studies if I wanted to remain at Oxford after Honour Mods! He did this in a very friendly and kindly manner but made a big impact on me. I subsequently had the please of meeting him and Dr Peach in College and dining with them at High Table a few years ago.
Please give his family my deepest condolences.
Dr Shan Nair (Physics, 1969)
Thank you for letting me know this sad news.
Dr Altmann interviewed me for a place at Brasenose College to study Physics (1977 to 1980) and was one of my tutors.
He was always very pleasant and very knowledgeable.
May he rest in peace.
Alan Mayes (Physics, 1977)
Many thanks for your email about Simon Altmann. Very sad news, but what a remarkable age!
He was, indeed, my tutor for maths in my first degree year when I read physics (1964-7). He was always a very jovial person and put things across so very simply.
I visited his house a couple of occasions when he and his wife (Becka?) were most hospitable. But the highlight was when I drove to Italy with fellow student Rod Harford (who sadly passed away last year) and stayed for a few days at Simon’s villa in Sperlonga, some 130km south of Rome.
Please pass on my condolences to his family.
Stephen Lee (Physics, 1964)
Thank you so much for telling me of the sad death of Simon Altman. He was an immensely civilising presence in BNC. And he must surely hold the record for longevity. A check in the archives would almost certainly show that no Brasenose Fellow has ever lived to such an age.
Professor Joe Mordaunt Crook (Modern History, 1955, Honorary Fellow)
I will never forget Simon's extraordinary kindness and gentle nobility, his playful sense of humour, and especially the tremendous amount of extra time, care and effort - well beyond what was required of him - that he put towards my mathematical development, particularly in group theory, which he had a particular passion for.
I could not have asked for a better teacher and friend and I will miss him greatly.
Dr Sabbir Rahman (Physics, 1989)
PhD, Theoretical Physics, MIT (1997)
At Brasenose, Dr. Altmann tutored me in physics. Due to some depression, I had a rocky time in my first year and then took the next year away. Dr. Altmann was extraordinarily kind and practical as he helped me and my family navigate this period, supporting us in both his words and his deeds. This is just one example of what I experienced as his deep interest in the personal welfare, as well as the academic success, of his students. I feel fortunate to have been able to thank him again at a recent Gaudy.
Bryan Whittle (Physics, 1973)
Thank you very much for conveying the news, sad though it is.
My most vivid memory of Simon Altmann was his kindness when a few months after arriving in Brasenose from New Zealand to begin my thesis in theoretical physics, I was faced with the sudden loss of my mother. Simon's generous words of comfort "The gods must have been jealous" have stayed with me ever since. He, as well as the principal Herbert Hart, brought home to me that the college really cared for its students on a personal, as well as an academic, level.
Dr Timothy Ziman (Physics, 1975)
I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Dr Altmann. He was my tutor during my first term in College in 1976, and was a lovely person and a fine teacher. Dr Altmann was particularly sensitive to the tough challenges that I (and others from a similar background) were facing in the transition from a Midlands state school sixth form to an Oxford college. I wish that I had called upon his generously offered pastoral care a lot more. That first term is the one that I have my fondest memories of.
Nick Martin (Physics, 1976)
In October 1969 on our first Saturday night in BNC he invited all eight first year physicists to his room in the old quad where we got to know each other in a most convivial fashion over some bottles of wine. He was a most patient and instructive teacher. Although not one of his best students I do remember how his eyes would light up on the rare occasions when I managed to solve one of the set problems and particularly if it was an elegant solution.
Simon changed my life. Not through Physics but by his suggestion that we did something different in the long vac. So in September 1970 three of us spent a month learning Italian at Perugia university. By chance we went to Rome on the weekend of the 20th to find the city in festa as it celebrated the 100th anniversary of the entry of Italian troops and the City's incorporation into the new Italian state. My eternal love affair with Italy began then and has continued to this day. Thank you Simon I owe you so much.
David Gibson (Physics, 1969)
It was with great sadness that I learned of the loss of my mentor and friend Simon Altmann from his son Gerry at the end of September.
One of my two college tutors in Physics from 1969 to 1972 (along with John Peach), Simon nurtured my early interest in philosophy of science. We discussed the interpretation of quantum theory (although the “heathen variables” had me momentarily puzzled!), and he taught me logic in his spare time. Subsequently, on his advice I went to McGill University in Montreal to do an MA in Philosophy with his fellow Argentine and theoretical physicist, Mario Bunge, and from there I pursued a career in history and philosophy of science and mathematics. Simon himself then launched a second career as an author in the same fields. He followed up his justly lauded Band Theory of Solids (Clarendon 1991) and Rotations, Quaternions and Double Groups (Dover, 1986), with works in a more philosophical vein, publishing Icons and Symmetries (Clarendon Press, 1992) and Is Nature Supernatural? (Prometheus, 2002). Throughout these decades we had stayed in close touch. In the late eighties I visited him in the cliff-top villa he had built for himself in Sperlonga, Italy, knocking on his door with some hesitation late at night and unannounced, only to be received like a prodigal son, and generously entertained for a delightful two weeks as guest of “il professore”, as he was known by all the people in the town.
Subsequently I introduced him to my wife Gabriella and our sons, and we were always received with kindness by him and Bocha when we visited them in Oxford on our trips to England. I was a reader for Clarendon Press for his Icons and Symmetries, and when I gave him my logic textbook (Natural Deduction: An Introduction to logic with real arguments, a little history and some humour, Broadview, 2011)—the late fruit of his early tuition!—Simon leant it to his grandson, delightedly reporting an excellent outcome.
Simon continued his interest in the philosophy of physics into his last days, and in the month before he died he was seeking my help publishing an essay on causation that had been accepted by the journal Inference, but then, bizarrely, rejected. As he told me with some pride, he had been working on the topic since he was 19!
The world is a sorrier place without him, and we will miss Simon profoundly.
Richard Arthur (Physics 1969), FRSC, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, McMaster University
Thank you Simon for being Simon.
Michael Watts (Physics & Engineering, 1968)