Richard Courant (born
January 8, 1888 – January 27, 1972) was a German mathematician.
Life
Courant
was born in Lublinitz in the German Empire's Prussian Province of Silesia. During his youth, his parents had to move
quite often, to Glatz, Breslau, and in 1905 to Berlin.
He stayed
in Breslau and entered the university there. As he found the courses not demanding enough,
he continued his studies in Zürich and Göttingen. Courant eventually became
David Hilbert's assistant in Göttingen and
obtained his doctorate there in 1910. He had to fight in
World War I, but he was wounded and dismissed
from the military service shortly after enlisting. After the war,
in 1919, he married Nerina (Nina) Runge, a daughter of the
Göttingen professor for Applied Mathematics,
Carl Runge.
Richard continued his research in Göttingen,
with a two-year period as professor in Münster. There he founded the Mathematical
Institute, which he headed as director from 1928 until 1933.
Courant left
Germany in 1933, earlier
than many of his colleagues. While he was classified as a
Jew by the
Nazis, his having served
as a front-line soldier exempted him from losing his position for
this particular reason at the time; however, his public membership
in the
social-democratic left
was a reason for dismissal to which no such exemption
applied.
[71531]
After one
year in Cambridge, Courant went to New York City where he became a professor at New York
University in 1936. He was given the task of founding
an institute for graduate studies in mathematics, a task which he
carried out very successfully.
The Courant Institute of Mathematical
Sciences (as it was renamed in 1964) continues to be one of
the most respected research centers in applied mathematics.
Apart from his outstanding organizational talent, Courant is well
remembered for his mathematical achievements. He and
David Hilbert authored the influential
textbook Methods of Mathematical
Physics, which is still widely used more than eighty years
after it was written. He was the co-author, with
Herbert Robbins, of a popularization titled
What is Mathematics?,
which is still in print. His name is also attached to the
finite element method, later
reinvented by engineers. Courant gave this a solid mathematical
basis. This method is now one of the ways to solve
partial differential equations
numerically. Courant is a
namesake of the
Courant–Friedrichs–Lewy
condition and the
Courant
minimax principle.
Courant
died in New York
City. Richard and Nerina had four children.
Ernest is a
particle physicist and innovator in
particle accelerators, Gertrude is a PhD biologist,
Hans is a physicist who participated in the
Manhattan Project, and Leonore who
was a professional musician.
Perspective on mathematics
Commenting upon his analysis of experimental results from
in-laboratory soap film formations, Courant believed that the
existence of a physical solution does not obviate the need for
mathematical proof. Here is a quote from Courant on his
mathematical perspective:
Empirical evidence can never establish mathematical
existence--nor can the mathematician's demand for existence be
dismissed by the physicist as useless rigor. Only a mathematical
existence proof can ensure that the mathematical description of a
physical phenomenon is meaningful.
Notes
- The Parsimonious Universe, Stefan Hildebrandt &
Anthony Tromba, Springer-Verlag, 1996, page 148
External links