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Richard Courant

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Title: Richard Courant  
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Subject: David Hilbert, Joseph Keller, William Feller, Oswald Teichmüller, Constance Reid
Collection: 1888 Births, 1972 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Mathematicians, 20Th-Century German Mathematicians, Academics of the University of Cambridge, American People of German-Jewish Descent, Foreign Members of the Ussr Academy of Sciences, German Jews Who Emigrated to the United States to Escape Nazism, German Military Personnel of World War I, Jewish Emigrants from Nazi Germany to the United States, Mathematical Analysts, New York University Faculty, People Associated with the Finite Element Method, People Associated with the University of Zurich, People from Lubliniec, People from New Rochelle, New York, People from the Province of Silesia, People Who Emigrated to Escape Nazism, Silesian Jews, Textbook Writers, University of Breslau Alumni, University of Göttingen Alumni, University of Münster Faculty
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Richard Courant

Richard Courant (January 8, 1888 – January 27, 1972) was a German mathematician. He is best known by the general public for the book What is Mathematics?, co-written with Herbert Robbins.


  • Life and career 1
  • Perspective on mathematics 2
  • Personal life 3
  • Publications 4
  • References 5
  • Sources 6
  • External links 7

Life and career

Courant was born in Lublinitz, in the Prussian Province of Silesia. His parents were Siegmund Courant and Martha Courant née Freund of Oels. Edith Stein was Richard's cousin on the paternal side. During his youth his parents moved often, including to Glatz, then to Breslau and in 1905 to Berlin. He stayed in Breslau and entered the university there, then continued his studies at the University of Zürich and the University of Göttingen. He became David Hilbert's assistant in Göttingen and obtained his doctorate there in 1910. He was obliged to serve in World War I but was wounded shortly after enlisting and dismissed from the military. He continued his research in Göttingen and then engaged a two-year period at the University of Münster as professor of mathematics. There he founded the Mathematical Institute, which he headed as director from 1928 until 1933.

Courant left Germany in 1933, earlier than many Jewish émigrés. While he was classified by the Nazis as a Jew, his previous service 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 reason enough (for the Nazis) for dismissal.[1]

In 1936, after one year at Cambridge, Courant accepted a professorship at New York University in New York City. There he founded an institute for graduate studies in applied mathematics. The Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences (as it was renamed in 1964) is now one of the most respected research centers in applied mathematics.

Courant and David Hilbert authored the influential textbook Methoden der mathematischen Physik which, with its revised editions, is still current and widely used since its publication in 1924. With Herbert Robbins he coauthored a popular overview of higher mathematics, intended for the general public, titled What is Mathematics?.

Courant's name is also attached to the finite element method,[2] with his numerical treatment of the plain torsion problem for multiply-connected domains, published in 1943.[3] 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 Rochelle, New York.[4]

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.[5]

Personal life

In 1919 Courant married Nerina (Nina) Runge, the daughter of the Göttingen professor for Applied Mathematics, Carl Runge. Richard and Nerina had four children: Ernest, a particle physicist and innovator in particle accelerators; Gertrude (1922-2014), a PhD biologist and wife of the mathematician Jürgen Moser (1928–1999); Hans, a physicist who participated in the Manhattan Project; and Leonore (known as "Lori," 1928-2015), a professional violist and wife of the mathematician Jerome Berkowitz (1928–1998).



  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ NY Times Obituary "Dr. Richard Courant Dies at 84; Influential Mathematics Scholar; Organizer and Ex. Direcgor of Institute at N.Y.U. Aided Research and Teaching"
  5. ^ The Parsimonious Universe, Stefan Hildebrandt & Anthony Tromba, Springer-Verlag, 1996, page 148
  6. ^


External links

  • at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  • .
  • Biographical memoir – by Peter Lax
  • Oral History interview transcript with Richard Courant 9 May 1962, American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library and Archives
  • National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir
  • 2015 Video Interview with Hans Courant by Atomic Heritage Foundation Voices of the Manhattan Project

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