Mathematicians are human beings

Sep 19 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

So let us begin with what seems like a curiosity: here's a pdf excerpt of a mathematical article from the Thirties. Mathematics alone can be a pain, but the addition of Fraktur for the font? That seems excessive punishment.

(An excerpt from Teichmüller's "Multiplikation zyklischer Normalringe")

But this post is not to highlight the difficulty of reading mathematics; but rather about writing it.

The article is authored by a Mr. Oswald Teichmüller; a fairly famous and influential German mathematician who died young. The mathematics and the Fraktur are not the only problem in absorbing the article; it, like much of Teichmüller's original work, is a bit difficult to get hold of. The reason for that is the journal Mr. Teichmüller chose to publish in.

Here's the cover of that journal's that particular issue.

(The cover of "Deutsche Mathematik", April 1936)

The paper's name is "Deutsche Mathematik"; German Mathematics. Pray note it is from the year 1936. The reason Oswald Teichmüller is publishing in this particular journal is that he shares a political leaning (well, tripping) with its editor, Ludwig Bieberbach --- another accomplished and important mathematician of that time.

Here's the table of contents.

(The contents page of "Deutsche Mathematik", April 1936)

It is that political leaning which explains why Deutsche Mathematik contains rabidly patriotic articles in addition to mathematical ones; why there are no Jews or foreigners publishing in it; why, generally speaking, it is of such poor quality, and why those publishing in it get ever fewer, year by year; it is the reason why such a silly and terrible thing as "German Mathematics" has even been postulated.

Mr. Teichmüller and Mr. Bieberbach are both card-carrying, uniform-wearing, hate-slinging members of the Nazi Party.

Teichmüller is a young fanatic; eventually he graduates from strutting around in a SA uniform and harassing professors to volunteering for the Eastern Front, and presumably dies there in 1943. His body is never found.

Bieberbach, an opportunistic co-founder of this German Mathematics foolishness, will survive the war, but his reputation won't. He will continue to be a teacher of mathematics; but his academic positions and inventions are done. He dies in 1982.

The journal "Deutsche Mathematik" fails in 1943; there are no reprints.

I think what I want to say here is this: mathematicians are human beings. That we deal with proof and logic doesn't need to make us any nicer or smarter. This is just one example of how we, too, can be just as vicious, misguided and small-minded as any other group. But if you want to salvage something from this gloom, consider this: the mathematical results of those two live on, and by being an indistinguishable part of the international and universal structure of mathematical creation, they deftly refute their authors' un-mathematical assertions.

(The MacTutor archive has fuller biographies of Teichmüller and Bieberbach.)

2 responses so far

  • Peter Lund says:

    Both the cover and the table of contents seem innocent enough to me -- anything in particular that strikes you as Nazi/anti-Semitic?

    I know that Bieberbach, Teichmüller and others were on the wrong side -- but there must be better ways to show this than a few pages of German in a -- beatiful and surprisingly readable -- Fraktur.

    Btw, just for kicks, try and compare issues of Der Stürmer (there are scans on the web) with transcripts from Rush Limbaugh's radio shows (also on the web)...

  • masksoferis says:

    Ah. To be honest, this post is a convergence of (a) knowing the reputation of DM, (b) knowing the "legend" of Teichmüller and Bieberbach, and (c) "Oh, two old, old issues of some journal on that to-be-cleaned shelf next to the Eighties computer manuals? Will check and save; might be thrown away otherwise. Wait, this journal wouldn't be that one... oh, blimey." And either fortunately or unfortunately those two issues aren't that filled with racial propaganda.

    The other, January 1936 number of DM has this quote facing the contents page:

    Wer ein Volk zum Stolz erziehen will, muss ihm auch sichtbaren Anlass zum Stolz geben

    Der Führer

    auf dem Reichsparteitag der Freiheit

    --- but even that does not get too uneasy, because that is merely, if I recall my high school German correctly, and correctly interpret Google Translate, "Who would educate a People to have pride, must show them reasons to be proud".