Anti-Semitism brought down one of the world's greatest centers for mathematical research, explains David Gunderman, PhD student in Applied Mathematics, University of Colorado.
Auditorium University of Göttingen, Germany
Photo: Daniel Schwen/Wikimeida Cmmmons [Licensed under CC BY 2.5] There are two things that connect the names Gauss, Riemann, Hilbert and Noether. One is their outstanding breadth of contributions to the field of mathematics. The other is that each was a professor at the same university in Göttingen, Germany.
Although relatively unknown today, Göttingen, a small German university town, was for a time one of the most productive centers of mathematics in history.
Göttingen’s rise to mathematical primacy occurred over generations, but its fall took less than a decade when its stars were pushed abroad by the advent of National Socialism, the ideology of the Nazi Party. The university’s best minds left Germany in the early 1930s, transferring its substantial mathematical legacy to Princeton, New York University, and other British and American universities. By 1943, 16 former Göttingen faculty members were in the US.
The story of the rise and fall of mathematics in Göttingen has largely been forgotten, but names associated with the place still appear frequently in the world of mathematics. Its legacy survives today in other mathematical research powerhouses around the world...
By the late 18th century, the university in Göttingen was a well-known center of scientific learning in Germany. Its enduring mathematical prowess, however, originated in Carl Friedrich Gauss. Often referred to as the prince of mathematics, his research at Göttingen between 1795 and 1855 spanned from algebra to magnetism to astronomy.
Gauss’s discoveries were groundbreaking, but the reputation that he started in Göttingen only grew as mathematicians from across Europe flocked to the town. Bernhard Riemann, the head of mathematics at Göttingen from 1859 to 1866, invented Riemannian geometry, which paved the way for Einstein’s future work on relativity. Felix Klein, the chair of mathematics from 1886 to 1913, was the first to describe the Klein bottle, a 3-dimensional object with just one side, similar to the Mobius strip...
Emmy Noether, who had been the first female professor of mathematics at Göttingen and was described by Einstein as the most important woman in the history of mathematics, left in 1933 to teach at Bryn Mawr College. Richard Courant left in 1933 to help found the top US applied mathematics institute at New York University. Hermann Wey, who had been appointed Hilbert’s successor as chair of mathematics in Göttingen,l moved to Princeton, where he helped to transform the Institute for Advanced Studies into a research powerhouse.