Person: Courant, Richard
Richard Courant was a Polish-born applied mathematician best known for founding the Institute named after him in New York.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- Siegmund worked for an insurance company in Breslau and Richard attended school there, entering the König-Wilhelm Gymnasium.
- With little previous education Richard struggled at school at first, even being "less than satisfactory" at arithmetic.
- When Richard was fourteen years old he began to tutor to make enough money to support himself.
- Shortly after Siegmund was declared bankrupt and the following two years must have been ones of extreme difficulty for Richard, attending school and still supporting himself tutoring.
- In 1904 Richard's parents left Breslau and moved to Berlin.
- Richard was earning enough to support himself, even now that he had to rent accommodation in Breslau.
- Although he had not yet passed the examinations necessary to enter university, Richard left school in 1905 and attended classes in mathematics and physics at the University of Breslau.
- Although his original intention was to study physics, Courant found the teaching less satisfactory than that in mathematics.
- Adolf Kneser, Georg Landsberg and Jakob Rosanes were among his mathematics teachers but Courant still found that, for him, their courses lacked excitement.
- Courant had studied at Breslau with two fellow students Otto Toeplitz and Ernst Hellinger.
- These two, several years older than Courant and further on with their education, were by this stage studying at Göttingen and wrote to Courant telling him how exciting it was there, particularly because of Hilbert.
- In the spring of 1907 Courant left Breslau, spent a semester at Zürich, then began his studies at Göttingen on 1 November 1907.
- At Göttingen Courant began by attending courses by Hilbert and Minkowski and he was also allowed to attend the joint seminar of the two mathematicians on mathematical physics.
- Haar was Hilbert's assistant at this time but he completed his doctoral work in 1908 and in that year Courant became Hilbert's assistant.
- Courant took to analysis as if it were his natural element.
- Courant obtained his doctorate from Göttingen in 1910 under Hilbert's supervision.
- Courant began to tutor again to help out his finances.
- For his habilitation thesis Courant again worked on the Dirichlet principle.
- When war broke out Courant was drafted into the army.
- Courant returned to his unit with his communications box.
- On the 27 September 1915 Courant was wounded and received leave.
- Although Courant returned to the front it is probably no exaggeration to say that his piece of communications equipment saved his life, for Courant spent time training men to use it and avoided the worst of the fighting.
- Courant found time to carry on with his mathematics research too.
- When Springer started the new journal Mathematische Zeitschrift in January 1918, one of Courant's papers, written while he was in the army, appeared in the second issue.
- After the war, in December 1918, Courant returned to Göttingen.
- This was a period of intense research activity for Courant.
- In 1922 Courant founded the university's Mathematics Institute but at this stage it was only a concept with no special building - it was 1927 before the building was constructed.
- In 1922 Courant published a book on function theory.
- Based on Hurwitz's lectures, Courant added material of his own.
- Other important mathematics which Courant published around this time was work on eigenvalue, in particular proofs of existence.
- Again Courant was the sole author and the contribution from Hilbert was in the form of lecture notes.
- Hilbert's interests had moved away from mathematical physics by this time and he did not take any more than a passing interest that Courant was writing the text.
- In 1925, with Friedrichs as his assistant, Courant began work on a second volume of Courant-Hilbert.
- Invited to lecture in the United States in 1932 Courant visited the major universities there.
- Courant was expelled from Göttingen when the Nazis came to power in 1933.
- On 30 January 1933 Hitler came to power and in March Courant left Göttingen for his spring holiday in Arosa in Switzerland.
- He had been hoping not only to have a holiday, but to complete the second volume of Courant-Hilbert when away from his duties in the Mathematics Institute.
- Friedrichs was with Courant to help with the book.
- Certainly Courant came under the exemption clause and he expected to be unaffected.
- On 5 May Courant received an official letter telling him he was on forced leave.
- Weyl was made director of the Mathematics Institute and he made every effort to have Courant reinstated.
- Meanwhile attempts were made to offer Courant posts elsewhere.
- His forced leave was changed to ordinary leave and Courant left for England, going to New York University the following year.
- Courant built up an applied mathematics research centre in New York based on the Göttingen model, making many new appointments such as Friedrichs.
- Perhaps one of Courant's most famous pieces of mathematics from around this time was his "finite element method".
- This method first appeared in an existence proof of a version of the Riemann mapping theorem in the Hurwitz-Courant book of 1922.
- The idea appeared again as a footnote in the Courant-Hilbert publication Methoden der mathematischen Physik Ⓣ(Methods of mathematical physics) in 1924.
- The first application as a numerical method, however, was given by Courant in 1943 in his solution of a torsion problem.
- The name "finite element method" was not due to Courant, however, but appears only in the 1960s.
- From 1947 until his death Courant visited Germany almost every summer.
- From 1953 to 1958 he was director of his new Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University, which in 1964 was named the Courant Institute after him.
- It is fair to say that this was a far greater achievement for Courant than was the Mathematics Institute at Göttingen.
- That he was able to create the Courant Institute starting from nothing is a quite phenomenal achievement.
Born 8 January 1888, Lublinitz, Germany (now Lubliniec, Poland). Died 27 January 1972, New Rochelle, New York, USA.
View full biography at MacTutor
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Thank you to the contributors under CC BY-SA 4.0!
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive