Frederick Michael Larkin (1936-1982)

The text below is a transcription of this typescript obituary for my father F.M. (Mike) Larkin, likely delivered in Faculty Senate at Queen’s University on February 11 1982. The photo at right is a still from this 1967 film explaining the GHOST graphical output system developed during his time at the UKAEA Culham Laboratory, which can be seen here in early photos.

I’m posting this in response to growing interest in Dad’s innovations in probabalistic approximation techniques. I welcome any further information or corrections, which I will add as appropriate. In January 2019 I looked through the  2.2 m of textual records of his correspondence, articles, reports, notes, lectures and publications on mathematics in the archives at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. That research turned up the chronology at the bottom of this page. I also took a lot of photos, which I plan to share in future blog posts. If you have further information about my father’s career or if you have the resources to support further research, or if you would like more information, feel free to get in touch.


Frederick Michael Larkin

Michael Larkin was born in England in 1936 and took his B.Sc. in Honours Mathematics at Imperial College, London, England. From 1957 to 1969 Michael worked in government and industry research laboratories in England with stints at the Atomic Energy Labs at Harwell and Culham interrupted by a two year interlude at Rolls Royce. During this period, he worked extensively with digital and analogue computers in modelling theoretical design of nuclear systems. Although most of this work was classified he did publish four papers on topics in numerical computation graphics.

Michael joined the Computing Centre at Queen’s in 1969 as a consultant in Numerical Methods and Applied Mathematics. His role was to help researchers across the campus make effective use of the computing facilities for scientific computing. Through his efforts, Queen’s acquired the state-of-the-art numerical libraries then available and Michael encouraged their use by providing the backup service to users who encountered difficulties. During this period Michael’s interest in research blossomed and he produced five major papers in approximation theory. At the same time his interest in the academic programs at Queen’s grew and he became a part time lecturer in the Department of Computing and Information Science, assisting with curriculum design and teaching in the numerical analysis area.

In 1974, Michael joined the Department on a full time basis as an Associate Professor. He received tenure in 1977 and was promoted to Full Professor in 1980. He taught at all levels of the curriculum and continued his active interest in research. In addition, he took a keen interest in University affairs, serving as a Member of the Senate, as a Member of the Steering Committee of the Graduate School and, briefly, as Vice-Chairman of Graduate Studies. Within the Department he served as Chairman of Graduate Studies and as a member of our Curriculum Committee.

Michael had many outside interests as well. He was an avid downhill skier in winter and a sailor in the summer. He had a deep interest in music, which he passed on to his son, Matthew, and his harmonica and tin flute playing entertained us at many department gatherings. Michael exhibited a zest for life that we all admired.

I would like to finish by saying something about Michael’s research work. He worked in isolation at Queen’s in that few graduate students and fewer faculty members were aware of the nature of his research contributions to the field.

Essentially, all numerical methods rely on the use of local approximation of functions to achieve their goals. The classical approximation techniques, based on Taylor series expansions, are the foundation of almost all present day practical methods. Michael pioneered the idea of using a probabilistic approach to give an alternative local approximation technique. In some cases this leads to the classical methods, but in many others leads to new algorithms that appear to have practical advantages over more classical methods. This work has finally begun to attract attention and I expect that the importance of his contributions will grow in time. Michael was a self made researcher. He had no formal mathematics beyond the B.Sc. level, yet he was able to make fundamental contributions at the highest levels of applied mathematics. His curiosity about how the world around him worked was evident to all who knew him well.

The Faculty and the Department have lost a true scholar and are the poorer for his passing.

Brief Chronology 
(from a Sept 1980 grant application in the Queen’s U archive):

1957-59: U.K.A.E.A., Harwell, England.

Designs and theoretical assessment of nuclear radiation shielding; extensive use of digital computers.

1960-61: Rolls Royce and Associates, Derby, England.

Experimental engineering research on heat transfer characteristics of nuclear reactor fuel elements, using a 5 megawatt heat transfer rig in high presure hit water.

Design and theoretical assessment of nuclear reactor systems for ship propulsion, particularly transient analysis. Extensive use of analogue computers.

1961-69: U.K.A.E.A., Culham, England. 

Theoretical and computational work related to the problem of control-led thermonuclear fusion. Design and analysis of unusual magnetic field configurations; invented the “tennis-ball seam conductor” for creating a “magnetic well”, used at the Lawrence Livermore Lab as an experimental plasma containment device.

Research in computer graphics; originated the graphic systm now standard at the U.K.A.E.A., the British National Physical Laboratory and a number of British universities.

1969-74:  Computing Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.

Consulting work in Numerical Methods and Applied Mathematics. Research in Approximation Theory. Teaching for Department of Computing and Information Science; originated courses in classical Numerical Analysis, numerical treatment of Partial Differential Equations and numerical techniques in Approximation Theory.

1974-1981: Department of Computing and Information Science, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.

Teaching of undergraduatel courses in Computing and Numerical Analysis, and postgraduate courses in Appproximation Theory, and the numerical treatment of Partial Differential Equations. Research in Approximation Theory and Numerical Analysis.