Mark Austin Peterson
SOUTH HADLEY, MA – Mark Austin Peterson passed away peacefully at home in South Hadley, MA on Friday, May 27, 2022 with his wife Indira by his side. In the spring of last year he was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor and faced his frightening illness with his characteristic courage, grace and dignity.
Born August 30, 1946 in New Haven, Connecticut, Mark was the son of Dr. Elroy R. Peterson and Jean Austin Peterson. He grew up in Ames, Iowa and graduated from Ames High School in 1964. That year he was named one of two Presidential Scholars for the State of Iowa by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He attended Amherst College, where he devoted himself to the liberal arts curriculum, majoring in physics and graduating summa cum laude in 1968. In 1973 he received his doctorate in physics from Stanford University. After a year teaching at Montana State University, Mark joined the Physics Department at Amherst College and taught there from 1974 to 1980. It was in Amherst that he met the love of his life, Indira, when she came to teach at the Five Colleges . Mark and Indira married in 1979 and their daughter Maya was born the following year. Mark taught at George Mason University for a few years, but the family returned to their beloved Connecticut River Valley in 1982 when both Mark and Indira joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke College. Mark retired as a professor of mathematics and physics from Mount Holyoke in 2021.
Mark’s scholarship and teaching embodied the originality of his thinking, the breadth of his intellectual interests, and his passion for the humanities and sciences. From his early work on classical field theories and various areas of theoretical physics, to his study of microhydrodynamics and the biophysical properties of cell membranes, to his extensive research and writings on the sciences and arts of the Renaissance, curiosity and a love of discovery permeated everything Mark did . His 1997 cover article for The Mathematical Intelligencer argues that Piero della Francesca, a great artist of the Italian Renaissance, was also the greatest mathematician of the 15th century. His 1979 article “Dante and the 3-sphere” in the American Journal of Physics argues that the universe that Dante painstakingly describes in The Divine Comedy is a three-dimensional sphere, an object that was not mathematically mathematical until the emergence of Non was described -Euclidean geometry in the 19th century. In Galileo’s Muse: Renaissance Mathematics and the Arts (Harvard University Press, 2011), he convincingly – and engagingly – argues the birth of modern physics from the knowledge and practices embedded in the intersection of mathematics with architecture, fine arts, music and poetry are embedded . Mark viewed interdisciplinary approaches as stepping stones to creative thinking and learning. He thrived in the vibrant intellectual community of the Five College Consortium and participated in forums such as the Valley Geometry Colloquium, the Renaissance Center at UMass, and the Five College Early Music Collegium.
A dedicated and innovative teacher of undergraduates, Mark has taught the full spectrum of math and physics courses at Mount Holyoke College and also co-teached with colleagues in other departments. He helped develop a course that made students partners in mathematical experiments. He worked with summer research students from across the United States who came to Mount Holyoke as part of the National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. He also wrote computer programs for learning Chinese characters and the Sanskrit script Devanagari. The hallmark of Mark’s approach to any intellectual endeavor was his ability to ask fundamental questions with great clarity. This ability, along with his caring spirit and ability to listen, made him a popular teacher, mentor and colleague. Mark combined brilliance with winning humility and absolute character integrity. His gentleness and human kindness were easy to see in his beautiful smile. It was also this kindness that underpinned his tireless activism for social, racial and gender justice. A committed progressive, he was an active member of the South Hadley Democratic Town Committee.
A true Renaissance man, Mark enjoyed reading the classics, singing and listening to early music. Dante, Homer and the Icelandic Sagas accompanied him throughout his life. He spent a full sabbatical memorizing the poems of Keats, Milton and Schiller. He loved traveling and cultural encounters and had a flair for languages. A Summer in a Mexican Village by Amherst Amigos left a deep impression; Teaching English in Shimonoseki, Japan sparked a love for all things Japanese. Reading Dante and Galileo led to a lifelong immersion in Italian language and culture. Indira introduced him to the cultural riches of India. With his fluent German, Mark immediately felt comfortable in Heidelberg, where he spent a sabbatical year with Indira and Maya, and at the Technical University of Munich, where he was a visiting scholar every summer for many years. Swimming was Mark’s great passion. Always a good swimmer, he entered the world of open water swimming at the age of 67, enjoying long distance ocean swims in Greece, Croatia and Sardinia.
At the heart of Mark’s zest for life was a love of family, a quality that made him a wonderful son, brother, husband, father and uncle. Mark and Indira knew from the moment they met that they were soul mates. There were many things that drew them together – love of languages and cultures, classics, education, music, art, scientific detective work, cats, bird watching, social justice – but most of all the harmony of kindred spirits promoting each other’s best. Maya completed the magic circle, delighting her parents with her sweetness, brilliance and zest for life. Mark shared every aspect of parenting; He and Maya had a special bond that found expression in a myriad of interests and adventures, including reading, hiking, and solving puzzles. Mark, Indira and Maya thrive in the company of two large and loving extended families. They traveled together, exploring the wonders of the world, but Mark loved nothing more than being at home with Indira and Maya, enjoying the simple, everyday pleasures — that morning espresso, a beer at the end of the day, gazing at the stars, sitting on the porch, and Watch fireflies and thunderstorms, bake apple pies in the fall.
As Maya grew up, Mark and Indira rejoiced in her many gifts—her brilliance as a student, scholar, and teacher, her sense of adventure, and immense kindness. They were thrilled when Maya found love and published an important book on the environmental history of Central Asia. When Mark was told shortly before retiring from class that he had an incurable brain tumor, he took the news with equanimity, saying that he had lived a rich and joyful life. But joy left Mark and Indira’s lives in June 2021 when their beloved Maya died of a rare childbirth complication, followed by the death of Priya Luna, the baby daughter of Maya and her partner Marm Kilpatrick. By 2022, however, there was some comfort in knowing that Maya lives in the hearts of the many people who love her and that her light will shine in the world through the fellowships and fellowships established in her name. inspire and encourage young men and women to pursue their aspirations in education and environmental protection. Mark’s own exemplary life will continue to inspire and warm the hearts of all who have had the privilege of knowing him.
Mark was raised by his father, Dr. Elroy R. Peterson, his beloved daughter Maya Karin Peterson (A. Marm Kilpatrick) and his young granddaughter Priya Luna Peterson passed away. He is survived by his wife Indira Viswanathan Peterson of South Hadley, MA; his mother, Jean Austin Peterson of Ames, IA; sisters Jane Muller-Peterson (Wolfgang Muller) of Carlisle, PA, Polly Peterson (Jon Solins) of Amherst, MA, Elizabeth Ann Peterson of Washington, DC and Martha Peterson (Tony Warning) of Elkhart, IN; mother-in-law Jaya Viswanathan from Bangalore, India; Indira’s siblings, Rama Viswanathan (Kanchana) from Long Beach, CA, Jagannathan Viswanathan (Meera) from Houston, TX, and Bhavani Rangan (Kumar) from Battle Creek, MI; and many loving nephews and nieces.
We are grateful that Mark has enriched our lives and we miss him dearly, as do the many friends, colleagues and students whose lives he has always touched for the better.
we are dr Zubeena Mateen and the team at Holyoke Medical Center and Dr. We are deeply grateful to Luis N. Gonzalez Castro and the Dana-Farber Cancer Center Neuro-Oncology team for the excellent treatment and care given to Mark. We thank the Hospice of the Fisher Home, Amherst, and the Gomes Home Care Agency for their compassionate care of Mark in his final days.
Donations in Mark’s memory can go to any of the many institutions and causes he has supported, including:
Maya K. Peterson Memorial Fund, University of California, Santa Cruz
Color of Change https://colorofchange.org/
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) https://www.splcenter.org/
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) https://www.aclu.org/
Beers & Story South Hadley Funeral Home was entrusted with the arrangements. To leave online condolences, please visit www.beersandstory.com
Published by the Daily Hampshire Gazette on 25 July 2022.