Faculty of Mathematics and Computer ScienceHistory

Since the earliest times, mathematics has encompassed all areas of the exact sciences. Computer Science is the indispensable foundation of all future technologies. Heidelberg University proudly looks back on a long development in research and teaching in these fields.

The Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science traces its origins back to the Faculty of Philosophy (since 1386), the Faculty of Sciences and Mathematics (from 1890 to 1969), and the Faculty of Mathematics (from 1969 to 2002).

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The early years

Mathematics has been taught at Heidelberg University since its foundation in 1386. Arithmetics and geometry, as subjects of the artes liberales, were initially taught outside of the subject, for example by the famous cosmographer Sebastian Münster (1488-1552), whom Heidelberg honored with a fountain on Karlsplatz and whose portrait could be seen on every one hundred D-Mark bill. Sebastian Münster held a professorship for Hebrew Studies, which was poorly endowed, so that after only three years of teaching, in 1527, he accepted a call to Basel. The first chair for mathematics was established in 1547 and occupied by the doctor Jakob Curio (1497-1572).

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First prosperity and first setbacks

An early heyday in Heidelberg mathematics occurred at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, when the court preacher Bartholomäus Pitiscus (1561-1613), together with the astronomer Valentin Otho and the professor of logic, Arabic and Hebrew Jacob Christmann, created trigonometric tables that were indispensable for astronomy and nautical science. The term trigonometry is due to Pitiscus.

In the 18th century, Heidelberg mathematics, along with the university as a whole, descended into intellectual mediocrity: some professorships were filled by the church in rapid succession, others were treated as hereditary benefices. Both were detrimental to the university's scientific standards. In addition, financial mismanagement and the Revolutionary Wars deprived the university of its property and independent income.

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The transfer of Heidelberg to the Grand Duchy of Baden in 1806 brought about a new beginning. The university was restructured and turned into a state-funded educational institution. As a result, mathematics experienced a second great heyday from 1850 to 1920, which is associated with the following names: Ludwig Otto Hesse (1811-1874; Hessian matrix, Hesse normal form), Immanuel Lazarus Fuchs (1833-1902; Fuchsian groups), Leo Königsberger (1837-1921; elliptical functions and differential equations), Moritz Benedikt Cantor (1829-1920; history of mathematics), Paul Gustav Stäckel (1862-1919; differential geometry, number theory and history of mathematics), and Oskar Perron (1880-1975; Dirichlet problem and continued fractions). Hesse, Fuchs and Königsberger knew how to gather a large crowd of highly talented students, not a few of whom later became very famous. Max Noether (1844-1921), for example, found his way to Heidelberg in the summer of 1867, and David Hilbert (1862-1943) in the summer of 1881. Another one of these celebrities was Sofja Kowalewskaja (1850-1891), who, as a Heidelberg student and the first female professor in Europe, consistently challenged the idea that mathematics was a purely male subject.

In 1904 the III. International Congress of Mathematics – on the initiative of Königsberger and under the presidency of Heinrich Weber (1842-1913), who had completed his habilitation in Heidelberg in 1866, brought the most important mathematicians of the time to Heidelberg.

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Dark Days

However, dark times came along as well. In 1935, the National Socialist regime of the time forced the successors of the mathematical pioneers, Heinrich Liebmann (1874-1939; differential geometry) and Artur Rosenthal (1887-1959; geometry, measure theory), to retire early because of their Jewish origin. Through a disciplinary proceeding in May 1932, Associate Professor Emil Julius Gumbel (1891-1966; statistics) had already been deprived of his teaching license because he had suggested in a socialist student group that a monument in the form of a rutabaga beet should commemorate the years of hardship after the First World War.

In November 1935, the then 28-year-old PD Herbert Seifert (1907-1996; topology, including Seifert surfaces, Seifert fibers) was summoned to Heidelberg from Dresden within two days to take over one of the two chairs left vacant by Liebmann and Rosenthal, as they had been forced to resign. Apart from one PD, the institute was left completely deserted. In 1936, Udo Wegner (1902-1989; theoretical mechanics), who was deemed more convenient to the regime, was appointed to the second chair as Rosenthal's successor. In 1945, he was dismissed on account of political charges.

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Upswing and Expansion

The development of the Mathematical Institute after the Second World War was strongly influenced by Seifert, Hans Maaß (1911-1992; function theory, including Maass wave forms), William Threlfall (1888-1949; topology), and Friedrich Karl Schmidt (1901-1977; algebra and number theory). Maaß carried out groundbreaking work in the field of automorphic functions. Seifert and Threlfall laid the foundation for Heidelberg's worldwide reputation as a center of topology. Schmidt founded an arithmetic-algebraic school here. The later traditional focal points of pure mathematics in Heidelberg with the mathematical areas of algebra, analysis, function theory, geometry, topology and number theory evolved from the continuation of the existing areas of work. A profile came into being that is still recognized scientifically to this day. This period also saw the move of the faculty from Heidelberg's old town, where it had last been housed in the Friedrichsbau at Bunsen-Platz, to a newly built institute building on the natural sciences campus in Neuenheimer Feld.

An important milestone in the development of the faculty as it is today was the founding of the Institute of Applied Mathematics in 1957. Over the course of the following years, the Mathematical Institute and the Institute for Applied Mathematics expanded considerably in terms of personnel. Important and guiding appointments in this expansion phase, with a formative effect on the later development, were the appointments of the colleagues Albrecht Dold (1928-2011; topology), Dieter Puppe (1930-2005; topology), Willi Jäger (*1940; applied analysis), Gerd Müller (1923-2006; mathematical logic), Werner Romberg (1909-2003; numerics) and Peter Roquette (*1927; algebra and number theory) in the years 1963-1974.

At this time, the Institute of Applied Mathematics rapidly developed focal points in the areas of applied analysis, numerics and optimization, and statistics. This development led to the foundation of the Interdisciplinary Center for Scientific Computing (IWR) in 1987. The IWR - although not part of the faculty itself - was a novelty for the time with considerable charisma which made it possible for Heidelberg mathematics to integrate a large number of its fields of work into interdisciplinary research and teaching. Traditionally, important cooperation partners of the IWR and the faculty are above all the Heidelberg faculties of biology, chemistry and physics as well as non-university research institutions, for example in industry. For some years now, however, there has also been increased cooperation with disciplines of the humanities.

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The 21st Century

An important and far-reaching step in the development of the faculty was the creation of the Institute for Computer Science in 2002. A first humble nucleus for this had already been formed by the Department of Mathematical Logic, which had been in existence since 1962. At the same time as the Institute of Computer Science was established, the “Faculty of Mathematics” was renamed the “Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science” in 2002 - a natural step in the course of adapting the educational programs and mathematical research to the new developments. The rapid growth in this area, which is characterized in Heidelberg by its particularly strong orientation towards application and interdisciplinarity, was further increased by the incorporation of Mannheim Computer Engineering into Heidelberg University in 2007. There are currently (as of March 2021) a total of 33 professorships filled at the faculty, 22 in mathematics and 11 in computer science.

In the 2000s, the faculty, which had grown considerably, had meanwhile been divided among seven buildings in Neuenheimer Feld, which made scientific cooperation - especially across institute boundaries - very difficult. In 2015, this situation was remedied with the construction of the Mathematikon by the Klaus Tschira Foundation: The building complex, consisting of three parts, gives room for science and business. Alongside research facilities and institutes, gastronomy and retail were also integrated into the building. The southern part of the building was gifted to the state of Baden-Württemberg and has since been the joint home of the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science and the IWR.

Today, researchers from all departments of the faculty contribute significantly to the Strategy of Excellence of Heidelberg University through the Cluster of Excellence STRUCTURES as well as through several Collaborative Research Centers and Graduate Schools.