History of Mathematics in Berlin: From Leonhard Euler to Issai Schur and Richard von Mises (1741–1933)

22.02.2017 | 17.04.2022

Mathematics was studied and developed in Berlin – the capital of the Prussian Kingdom (1701–1918/1945) and the capital of the German Empire (1871–1918/45) – at different academic institutions. Whereas the Academy of Sciences was already established in 1700, the university was founded only in 1810. Beside the Berlin Academy and the Berlin University mathematics was studied, developed and taught at some other scientific institutions like the Prussian War Academy (since 1810), the Technical College (since 1879), the Agricultural College (since 1881), and the Berlin School of Economics (since 1906).

In my lecture, first, I’ll describe the world of academia in Berlin between 1701 and 1945 with the special focus on those academic resp. scientific institutions where mathematics played an important role – as research field as well as a teaching subject. This overview will be the background and the frame of this lecture.

Second, I’ll sketch out the history of mathematics at two academic institutions – the Berlin Academy of Sciences and the Berlin University, with the special focus on the relation between Academy and University during this time. With the arrival of Leonhard Euler (1707–1783) in 1741 mathematics became important in Berlin for the next 25 years until 1766 when Euler was going back to St. Petersburg. His successor Joseph Louis Lagrange (1736–1813) was working in Berlin 20 years, between 1766 and 1786, and he was working here also on astronomy. Between 1832 – when P. G. Lejeune Dirichlet (1805–1859) became a Full Member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences and professor at the Berlin University – and 1897, when Karl Weierstrass (1815–1897) died, Berlin was a center of mathematics, attractive for many foreign students and post doctoral students from all over the world.

Third, I’ll discuss the aspect of national competition and international relations regarding the development of mathematics in Berlin. In the 18th century the competition was mostly going on between the „big“ four Academies of Sciences, between London (The Royal Society), Paris, St. Petersburg and Berlin. In the 19th century the center of mathematics shifted from Paris to other places including Berlin, while between 1895 and 1933 a competition took place between Berlin and Göttingen. The fruitful development of mathematics – in all fields and sub-disciplines, in pure and applied mathematics – was interrupted and mostly destroyed from January 1933 on because of the Nazi regime. The life and fate of the algebraist Issai Schur (1875–1941) and the aerodynamicist Richard von Mises (1883–1953) are only two examples of this destruction, both escaped into exile in 1938 and 1933 respectively.

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