Edmund Landau

EDMUND LANDAU

AND THE HEBREW UNIVERSITY

Biography:    Edmund Landau (1877-1938)

The story of Landau's relations with the just-founded Hebrew University is an intricate drama, in which academic considerations were mixed with questions of power and prestige. Landau found himself in the midst of a power-struggle between Dr. Magnes (the University's first Chancellor) on one side, and Dr. Chaim Weizmann (A leader of the Zionist movement, one of the founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and first president of Israel) and Prof. Albert Einstein on the other. Although he was a-political, his Prussian character, and his insistence on conditions that couldn't be met by the University authorities, made negotiations with him difficult. After teaching at the Einstein Institute for Mathematics for one year (1928), Landau went back to Germany, never to return to Jerusalem.

As a German patriot, Landau had a senior position in the renowned Göttingen University. He came from a rich, assimilated Jewish family. Despite that, he invested a great deal of efforts in the early 1920's in the idea of establishing a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He served as a member of the advisory committee of the university, took care of the purchase of Felix Klein's library for the Institute of Mathematics, and was involved in the fine details of the building plan. At the opening ceremonies of the Hebrew University (2/4/1925) he delivered a lecture on "Solved and Unsolved Problems in the Elementary Theory of Numbers" (see below), and a day later he gave a speech on the occasion of laying the cornerstone for the Institute of Mathematics. Both were given in Hebrew, which he had privately learned in Germany, apparently considering the idea of immigrating to Jerusalem.

Landau negotiated with Magnes on setting up and heading the Institute of Mathematics years ahead of his arrival in 1927. He insisted on a separate building for the institute, larger than Magnes had initially conceived. He wanted a special status for his assistant, Amira. His own dwelling and salary in Jerusalem were also a subject of some dispute, although it was clear to everybody that in material conditions the move from Göttingen to Jerusalem could be a real sacrifice (a point that Landau repeatedly emphasized).

On the subject of the teaching curriculum he was demanding, too. He suggested high-level basic courses in analysis, differential and integral calculus, analytic geometry, number theory, foundations of algebra and the theory of determinants (the latter - once every two years). He also suggested more advanced courses in function theory, differential equations, differential geometry, trigonometric series, and axioms of geometry. Later on, "according to the taste of the audience" he proposed courses in Galois theory, algebraic numbers, probability, calculus of variations, real analysis, set theory, projective geometry, and analytical mechanics. The choice of topics reflected the main streams in mathematics in the 20's, as taught in Göttingen. Together with Paris, these were the unrivaled centers of mathematical research, prior to World War II. Landau wanted at least three professors to teach the above mentioned courses, and was willing to be one of them.

Despite the difficulties, and after some concessions from Magnes, he arrived in Jerusalem in 1927, with his family, and started teaching in the fall semester. Mrs. Dina Neumann-Harari was his student, and tells of the special relations that he had with his students, a selected group of whom often visited his home. The obstacles to his successful adjustment to Palestine were numerous. His wife found the conditions in Jerusalem harsh, the construction of the Einstein Institute was delayed, and some financial demands by Landau were turned down.

Nevertheless, Landau might have stayed in Jerusalem if not for Magnes' idea of appointing him rector. Magnes, who was in serious personal conflict with Einstein, objected to the appointment of a rector altogether. When more and more voices demanded the creation of such a position, he proposed the universally-aclaimed and politically neutral Landau, thereby also to strengthen his own stance in the administration. Perhaps he also hoped to thus raise Landau's salary, to meet his expectations. Einstein vehemently objected, and won Weizmann's support. Instead they suggested the candidacy of Brodetsky from Leeds. They both wanted Landau to stay in the institute of mathematics, but didn't find him suitable for the position of rector, and preferred a man of their own, who would contain Magnes' influence.

Magnes, specifically against Weizmann's request, passed Landau a copy of the correspondence, and urged him to fight for the position before the board of trustees. But Landau, disliking the intrigues into which he was unwillingly drawn, decided to return to Germany.

His letters to Ms. Neumann, who completed her studies in Geneva, attest to his fondness for mathematics and teaching, and to the special relations that he had with his students. Occasionally, he sent her mathematical puzzles, told her of a newly discovered theorem of the Russian mathematician Shnirelman, advised her on her career, and told her about his daughter's engagement to Dr. Schoenberg (a respected mathematician, who gave the algebra course in Jerusalem in 1928). After their marriage the couple moved to Chicago.

Only in his last letter to Ms. Neumann, dating from the end of 1931, does he mention the new situation in Germany, briefly referring to the "chaos" in Göttingen.

Landau continued to follow the establishment of the Einstein Institute from abroad, but the work was left to others: Fraenkel, Levitzki, Fekete, and Landau's assistant,  Amira.


שאלות פתורות וסתומות בתורת המספרים האלמנטרית
(Open and closed problems in the elementary theory of numbers) (Word file in Hebrew) / Israel Mathematical Union
A copy of the lecture given by Edmund Landau (in Hebrew) at the inauguration of the Einstein Institute of Mathematics on April 1, 1925.
(ps version)
A display dedicated to Edmund Landau, is located in the reception hall on the 2nd floor of the Manchester House, in the Edmond J. Safra campus, Givat-Ram.
Additional reading:

Leo Corry and Norbert Schappacher:
Zionist Internationalism through Number Theory: Edmund Landau at the Opening of the Hebrew University in 1925.
Science in Context 23(4), 427-471 (2010).


© Landau portrait courtesy of the Hebrew University Photo Archive, All rights reserved.

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