Hermann Minkowski: His Life And Work

Born on June 22, 1864, Hermann Minkowski is a known Jewish-German Mathematician and Professor. The world knows him for his ground breaking work in the field of Number theory. Minkowski also contributed significantly towards Einstein's theory of special relativity, and is perhaps best known for his work on this too.

Hermann Minkowski
Hermann Minkowski

Early Life and Education:

Hermann Minkowski was born in the town of Aleksota in the kingdom of Poland. He received his education at home till the age of seven. Later, his parents shifted and settled in Konisberg in 1872. Minkowski first showed his talent for mathematics while studying at the gymnasium in Konigsberg. He showed his outstanding abilities by reading the work of Dedekind, Dirichlet and Gauss at such a tender age.

In April 1880, he took admission at the University of Konigsberg. Here, he became a lifelong friend of mathematicians Hilbert and Hurwitz. Later, he spent the winter semester of the academic year of 1882-1883 at the University of Berlin. During this time, he developed an interest towards quadratic forms of mathematics. In 1885, he obtained his doctorate degree from the Konigsberg University under the guidance of Ferdinand von Lindermann, a renowned German mathematician.

Notable works:

Minkowski contributed significantly to the development of modern mathematics. The development of the theory on the geometry of numbers is one of his most useful works. He utilized this theory very skillfully. This theory proved helpful in solving problems of number theory, mathematical physics and the theory of relativity. This geometric method further helped him to understand the theory of continued fractions and to generalize it into an algorithm.

Minkowski’s theory of four-dimensional space-time, better known as “Minkowski space” has an important place in Einstein's theory of Relativity. It aims to prove that the special theory of relativity that Albert Einstein presented algebraically, can be understood geometrically also. He discussed about this theory through his book “Space and Time”. The works of Einstein and Minkowski truly establish the correlation between space and time. Einstein at first viewed Minkowski's treatment as a mere mathematical trick. However, later he realized that a geometrical view of space–time would be necessary in order to complete his own later work in general relativity (1915).

Honours and teaching careeR:

Besides pursuing his research, Minkowski also taught mathematics at several prestigious Universities. These include the University of Bonn, Konigsberg University and the University of Gottingen. In his teaching career,  even personalities like Albert Einstein were his student. During his lifetime, he delivered several lectures on a number of topics like potential theory, hydrodynamics, theory of functions and so on. In 1883, the French Academy of Sciences conferred him the Mathematics Prize for his manuscript on the theory of quadratic forms.

Hermann Minkowski
Minkowski at the time of being awarded the "Mathematics Prize of the French Academy of Sciences" in 1883

Bond With David Hilbert

In 1902, he accepted a chair at the University of Gottingen. He served in this position till his untimely death in Gottingen in 1909. David Hilbert's obituary of Minkowski illustrates the deep friendship between the two mathematicians. It states (translated):

Since my student years Minkowski was my best, most dependable friend who supported me with all the depth and loyalty that was so characteristic of him. Our science, which we loved above all else, brought us together; it seemed to us a garden full of flowers. In it, we enjoyed looking for hidden pathways and discovered many a new perspective that appealed to our sense of beauty, and when one of us showed it to the other and we marveled over it together, our joy was complete. He was for me a rare gift from heaven and I must be grateful to have possessed that gift for so long. Now death has suddenly torn him from our midst. However, what death cannot take away is his noble image in our hearts and the knowledge that his spirit continues to be active in us.

After his death, renowned physicists like Max von Laue and Arnold Sommerfeld extended his idea of space and time. In 1911, Laue published a textbook on the special theory of relativity. It was the first textbook that used the formulation of Minowski. Herrmann Minkowski was truly one of the finest minds the mankind has witnessed till date.

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