New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
A commemoration to the great mathematician, Constantin Caratheodory, at the Onassis Cultural Center on the evening of October 23 was a departure from the Centerʼs customary seasonal presentation of concerts, poetry and dramatic readings.
When Ambassador Loukas Tsilas, Executive Director of the Onassis Cultural Center Introduced Greek Mathematicians: The Story of Constantin Caratheodory (1873-1950 Munich), he reassured the audience that the participating scholars, Dr. Ioannis Karatzas and Dr. Constantine Dafermos, promised him that although their presentations included information on some of Caratheodoryʼs complex contributions to higher mathematics, it would be done in such a way “that certainly you will understand.”
Ambassador Tsilas expressed confidence in this assertion, backing it up with a humorous recollection of a question he asked Dr. Karatzas as they walked on the beach one day, “I asked him how to a square a circle. It was the first time in my life I understood it!” he said.
And the professors did meet the challenge successfully, touching on some of Caratheodoryʼs seminal work in core mathematics — the theories of functions, measure and integration, complex analysis, partial differential equations, convex geometry and, most notably, the calculus of variations. and the mathematical foundations of thermodynamics — that inspired questions from the audience.
But they also told the remarkable life story of Constantin Caratheodory.
Dr. Dafermos (University Professor of Applied Mathematics at Brown University) presented excerpts from his book Constantin Caratheodory: From Smyrna and Athens to Munich, and Dr. Karatzas (Professor of Mathematics at Columbia University), presented the Introduction.
Constantin Caratheodory: 1873-1950, an atmospheric, beautifully edited documentary about Caratheodory by Dr. Vicki L. Hill, was screened after the presentations.
Caratheodory, one of the foremost mathematicians of the twentieth century, was the scion of very prominent Greek families with roots going back to Constantinople and the island of Chios. said Dr. Karatzas. His father Stephanos and his great uncles, most notably Alexander Caratheodory Pasha, held positions of the highest rank in the Foreign Service and in the Administration of the Ottoman Empire.
Constantin Caratheodory was born in Berlin in 1873, and was raised and educated in Germany and in Belgium. He wrote his dissertation under Minkowski in Goettingen, the center then of mathematical activity all over the world; and throughout his life he was in very close contact with the “twin giants” of Goettingen, David Hilbert and Felix Klein, whose general mathematical outlook he shared and whom, eventually, he succeeded there.
Caratheodory was a towering figure in mathematical life, said Dr. Karatzas, and had a deep influence on the work of many younger mathematicians and physicists. He had an engaging personality, deep appreciation for history and culture, very broad education, and combined mathematical genius with rare organizational skills. Catahtheodoryʼs textbooks were widely used, one until 1960; his tacking system for sailing is still in universal use.
“From 1909 until his retirement in 1938 he held important positions in several prominent German universities and received many academic honors. At the same time, he was deeply involved in the affairs of Greece and was instrumental in establishing the Ionian University in Smyrna (1919-22)”, said Dr. Karatzas.
“He regarded Mathematics as a cultural good, which gave meaning to his life, particularly in moments of great stress. His belief in the superiority of the German intellectual tradition was unshakeable. Equally unshakeable was his attachment to a grand, expansive vision of Hellenism, and of its “civilizing mission”. He had the bad fortune to see both these worlds come to an end, and collapse totally around him, within less than 20 years. As a result, he had to make difficult decisions in very turbulent times; one of these was his decision to remain in Munich throughout the 1930’s and 40’s.”
A good friend of Prime Minister Venizelos, Caratheodory was entrusted by him with the reform of the Greek Universities and, most importantly, with the great mission of establishing the Ionian University in Smyrna (1919-22). The American consul George Horton writes in his memoirs: “One of the last Greeks I saw on the streets of Smyrna before the entry of the Turks was Professor [Caratheodory], president of the doomed University. With him departed the incarnation of Greek genius of culture and civilization in the Orient”.
Caratheodory married Euphrosyne (Froso) Caratheodory, his distant relative and 11 years his junior; they had a son, Stephanos, and a daughter, Despina, who lives in Athens.
“I was looking to produce a documentary on an historical mathematics figure and had the great fortune to meet Maria Georgiadou, author of a biography of Constantin Caratheodory,” Dr. Vicki L. Hill told The Greek News. We met while she was on a fellowship at the Hellenic Studies Center at Princeton. I was at the American University in Washington, DC at the time. That meeting generated my interest in Caratheodory.”
Dr. Vicki L. Hill is an award-winning documentary film director. The documentary Constantin Caratheodory: 1873-1950 which chronicles his life and mathematical work, won two Telly Awards in 2004, one for History/Biography and another for Educational Video. It has been screened at several locations in the United States and Germany. Dr. HIll holds a PhD in mathematics education and a masterʼs degree in film and video from American University in Washington, DC/ She has designed and created the mathematics curriculum at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools
Several distinguished mathematicians attended the event. Among them were Dr. Catriona M. Byrne, Editorial Director, Mathematics, Springer, Germany; Dr. Panagiota Daskalopoulos, Professor, Mathematics Department, Columbia University; Dr. Julien Dubedat, Assistant Professor, Mathematics Department, Columbia University, Dr. Patrick Gallagher, Professor, Mathematics Department, Columbia University; Dr. Pierre Nolin, Instructor, Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University. Also attending were The Honorable Andreas Panayiotou, Consul General of Cyprus and The Honorable Sophia Veve, Consul of Greece, among others.