Genius in Exile: The Rise and Fall of Göttingen’s Mathematical Institute

Paul Halpern
8 min readAug 28, 2020
Göttingen Mathematical Institute, photo by Paul Halpern

Inspired by the designs of mathematician Felix Klein and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Göttingen Mathematical Institute in Germany was a modern marvel. Completed in 1929, its innovations included a centrally-located, spacious new math library, dormitory facilities for visitors, shared office space for Privatdozents (unpaid instructors), as well as individual offices for professors, lecture halls near offices, and ample room for displays of the department’s prized mathematical model collection in the central foyer. Moreover, these lavish facilities were completed during the time of the Great Depression. Its highly-accomplished faculty, some of the best in the world, included Richard Courant, Hermann Weyl, Emmy Noether, Edmund Landau, Felix Bernstein, and David Hilbert as an emeritus professor. Next door, the excellent Physical Institute faculty included James Franck, Max Born and Werner Heisenberg, each pioneers in Quantum Physics. The pleasant space between the buildings is sometimes called “The Garden where Quantum Physics began.”

Mathematician Richard Courant

Yet by the end of 1933, because of the rise of Hitler and his fascist anti-semitic policies, Courant, Landau, Bernstein, Weyl and Noether were gone. In their place were respectable, but relatively unknown mathematicians. By the fifth year of the building’s opening, its luster had already faded.

Mathematician David Hilbert

To give an idea of the change: In the late 1910s, Hilbert remarked, “Every boy in the streets of our mathematical Göttingen understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein…” In the late 1930s, when Hilbert met with Minister of Culture Bernard Rust at a banquet, Rust inquired about the state of math in Göttingen. Hilbert replied “There is no mathematics in Göttingen.”

Paul Halpern

Physicist and science writer. Author of Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect