Monday, June 22, 2009

June 22: Hermann Minkowski

Hermann Minkowski
June 22, 1864 – January 12, 1909

Hermann Minkowski was a German mathematician of Jewish and Polish descent, who created and developed the geometry of numbers and who used geometrical methods to solve difficult problems in number theory, mathematical physics, and the theory of relativity.

Minkowski taught at the universities of Bonn, Göttingen, Königsberg and Zürich. At the Eidgenössische Polytechnikum, today the ETH Zurich, he was one of Einstein's teachers.

Minkowski explored the arithmetic of quadratic forms, especially concerning n variables, and his research into that topic led him to consider certain geometric properties in a space of n dimensions. In 1896, he presented his geometry of numbers, a geometrical method that solved problems in number theory.

In 1902, he joined the Mathematics Department of Göttingen and became one of the close colleagues of David Hilbert, whom he first met in Königsberg. Constantin Carathéodory was one of his students there.

By 1907 Minkowski realized that the special theory of relativity, introduced by Einstein in 1905 and based on previous work of Lorentz and Poincaré, could be best understood in a four dimensional space, since known as "Minkowski spacetime", in which the time and space are not separated entities but intermingled in a four dimensional space-time, and in which the Lorentz geometry of special relativity can be nicely represented. The beginning part of his address delivered at the 80th Assembly of German Natural Scientists and Physicians (September 21, 1908) is now famous:
The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.

The asteroid 12493 Minkowski, M-matrices and the Lunar crater Minkowski are named in his honor.

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