Cover Story: The Fascination of Mathematics

Humboldt’s Hidden Passion for Numbers

By Michael Meier

According to the popular biographies, Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist, had no particular affiliation to mathematics. But, in reality, he was actually seriously involved in their promotion.

When Daniel Kehlmann’s novel “Measuring the World” appeared in 2005, this fictional double biography of the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt soon hit the top of the best-seller lists in Germany. Internationally, the book was a great success, too. However, the fact that Humboldt had far-reaching connections to mathematicians other than Gauss, and even sponsored some of them himself, is as yet little known outside specialist circles.

Admittedly, Humboldt was the first to acknowledge how little he knew about mathematics, indeed, to plead ignorance. But he never theless valued mathematics very highly, considering it an intellectual pursuit of the grandest order, and kept company with leading contemporary Parisian mathematicians like Lagrange, Laplace und Cauchy, which afforded him a certain degree of insight into the “relative value” of contemporary mathematicians. Furthermore, Humboldt understood enough mathematics to be able to assess its theoretical and practical significance correctly. He was also quick to tune into suggestions and recommendations from great mathematicians like Gauss, as well as having a fine sense of the science-policy issues they implied. And he did, indeed, use his exceptional position in society, his good connections and his influence for the good of mathematics.

A year after moving from Paris to Berlin in 1827, Humboldt received a letter from the famous astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, in which the latter heaped praise on a treatise by the 23 year-old mathematician Peter Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet. While still in Paris Humboldt had prepared the way for Dirichlet’s appointment to Breslau in 1826 by applying to the Prussian Minister von Altenstein. Now, two years later, Humboldt immediately sent copies of Bessel’s acclaim to Minister von Altenstein and other influential men whose interest in Dirichlet had to be awakened in order to draw him to Berlin. Dirichlet was appointed the same year, having modelled his behaviour on Humboldt’s detailed instructions.

Humboldt’s letters written to Dirichlet from 1825 to 1855 provide an insight into the manifold ways in which Humboldt promoted young talents: recognition and encouragement, attempts to improve their financial situation and procure them honours, introducing them to outstanding academics and giving them advice on how to deal with influential people.

Of all the mathematicians, the one who was probably closest to Humboldt was Gotthold Eisenstein. This highly-gifted young algebraist, whose genius Gauss considered to be of the kind of which nature only produces a few each century, suffered from serious health and financial problems during his entire life, which ended in 1852 when he died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 29. Humboldt’s patronage of Eisenstein is a classic example of his selfl ess care and provision for young talents in need of his protection. This is revealed in more than 60 letters from Humboldt to Eisenstein and dozens of petitions. Time and again Humboldt campaigned for payment of the discretionary stipends Eisenstein had been granted, having no permanent position of his own. When journeys were necessary for health reasons, Humboldt sometimes even made payments out of his own pocket. When there were no positions for Eisenstein in Berlin, Humboldt interceded for him in Vienna, Halle and Heidelberg. When Eisenstein died, Humboldt actually managed to force through full payment of a previously approved “grant” – against the will of the Minister of Finance. It was paid out to Eisenstein’s parents as compensation for the many sacrifices they had had to make. An almost unimaginable story in the current funding landscape!


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Michael Meier Michael Meier

Dr. Michael Meier is a mathematician and CEO of the Hausdorff Center for Mathematics at Bonn University. This article is based on publications by Kurt-R. Biermann, “Über die Förderung deutscher Mathematiker durch Alexander von Humboldt“ (in: “Alexander von Humboldt. Gedenkschrift”, Berlin, 1959) and “Ja, man muß sich an die Jugend halten! – Alexander von Humboldt als Förderer der forschenden Jugend” (SH-Verlag, Schernfeld, 1992).

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