Hermann Minkowski

Born: 22 June 1864 in Alexotas, Russian Empire (now Kaunas, Lithuania)
Died: 12 Jan 1909 in Göttingen, Germany

Hermann Minkowski studied at the Universities of Berlin and Königsberg. He received his doctorate in 1885 from Königsberg. He taught at several universities, Bonn, Königsberg and Zurich. In Zurich, Einstein was a student in several of the courses he gave.

Minkowski accepted a chair in 1902 at the University of Göttingen, where he stayed for the rest of his life. At Göttingen he learnt mathematical physics from Hilbert and his associates. He participated in a seminar on electron theory in 1905 and he learnt the latest results and theories in electrodynamics.

By 1907 Minkowski realised that the work of Lorentz and Einstein could be best understood in a non-euclidean spave. He considered space and time, which were formerly thought to be independent, to be coupled together in a four-dimensional 'space-time continuum'. Minkowski worked out a four-dimensional treatment of electrodynamics. His major works in this area are Raum und Zeit (1907) and Zwei Abhandlungen über die Grundgleichungen der Elektrodynamik (1909).

This space-time continuum provided a framework for all later mathematical work in relativity. These ideas were used by Albert Einstein in developing the general theory of relativity.

Minkowski was mainly interested in pure mathematics and spent much of his time investigating quadratic forms and continued fractions. His most original achievement, however, was his 'geometry of numbers'. This study led on to work on convex bodies and to questions about packing problems, the ways in which figures of a given shape can be placed within another given figure.

At the young age of 44, Minkowski died suddenly from a ruptured appendix.

J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

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