University of London maths professor found dead in Moscow park

Alexey Chervonenkis died of hypothermia after losing his way, according to search party who found body

A renowned mathematician and University of London professor has been found dead after losing his way in a Moscow park.

Alexey Chervonenkis, a 76-year-old emeritus professor of computer science at Royal Holloway, University of London, died of hypothermia after going astray in a swampy area, according to the search party that found his body.

Chervonenkis had gone for a walk on Sunday in Losiny Ostrov (“Moose Island”), a 120-sq-km national park located on the north-eastern edge of Moscow, near his home. He called his wife at 8.20pm to say he had become lost in a swamp and was tired but would try to make his way out, his widow told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. When he was still lost an hour later, she suggested they call emergency services, but Chervonenkis said they would not be able to find him anyway.

In a final call around midnight, the professor said he was tired and his body was shaking. After that, his phone was turned off. Chervonenkis’s oldest son hired a helicopter and flew out looking for him, and the family called Liza Alert, a volunteer organisation that searches for missing people. Over the next two days, the group led a search party of two helicopters and 182 volunteers, including an American professor who had come to Moscow to meet Chervonenkis on Monday.

One of the helicopters spotted his body from the air on Tuesday, and the leader of the search party later said he had died of hypothermia. Temperatures had dropped below freezing the night he disappeared. After the search party found the professor’s glasses, they called in a helicopter that spotted his body about 200 metres away on Tuesday afternoon, Liza Alert search director Grigory Sergeyev said.

“The search party passed very near him, but there’s a lot of grass there and lots of water spots because it’s a swamp, and finding a person laying in the grass is nearly impossible,” Sergeyev said. It took until the early hours of Wednesday morning for his body to be removed due to delays with police and rescue personnel, he added.

The cause of death was “almost certainly hypothermia,” as in several other cases of people lost in the Moscow area this month, Sergeyev said. Temperatures had dropped below freezing the night Chervonenkis disappeared.

According to a message of remembrance on Chervonenkis’s staff profile page at the University of London, he enjoyed long walks in both London and his native Moscow. The professor would often cover 15 – 20km in a day and knew how to navigate in the forest, his wife told Moskovsky Komsomolets. He reportedly had a map of the park with him on Sunday. “He was a great teacher and friend, and will be deeply missed,” the University of London message read.

Chervonenkis split his time between the computer learning research centre at the University of London and the research institute of control problems at the Russian Academy of Science, in Moscow, it said. He also worked with the data analysis school of Yandex, the most popular Russian-language search engine.

The professor was a leading expert in his field and developed the “whole new research area of ‘statistical learning theory’” with the mathematician Vladimir Vapnik, the university said. Their Vapnik-Chervonenkis theory of computational learning is well known today.

With the season for mushroom hunting, a popular Russian pastime, now in full swing, six other people have died in forests around Moscow this month, the majority of them from hypothermia, according to Liza Alert. In 2013, a reported 149 people lost their way in the forests of the Moscow region, 13 of whom were found dead and 20 of whom remain missing.

• This article was amended on 26 September 2014 to correct the size of Losiny Ostrov (“Moose Island”) to 120-sq-km, from 116,000-sq-km as an earlier version said.


Alec Luhn in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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