Monday, December 17, 2007

Once again, David Hilbert

A recent visitor to my humble blog got here with a Google search of the words "David Hilbert Jew". As I stated in my first post about the great man, Hilbert wasn't Jewish, but he was instrumental in the career of Emmy Noether, whose greatest employment obstacle was not her religion or ethnicity, but her gender. Hilbert was first and foremost about the math. He knew talent when he saw it, and that was the important thing.

When David Hilbert started in high school, he was an indifferent student. His parents, believing he was talented despite less than stellar grades, decided to switch him to a school that put more emphasis on math and physics, and his grades turned around. As a teacher, I have hope that there was some teacher at the new school that helped turn David the slacker into David the future genius, but the story is that at the new school, Hilbert met and befriended a young man named Hermann Minkowski. Minkowski was one of those brilliant and driven students who burned through his early academic career. Two years younger than Hilbert, he graduated before Hilbert and was taking university courses while still enrolled in high school. The two became fast friends, which was not seen as a positive in the Hilbert household. Otto Hilbert made his feelings clear to his young and brilliant son that it wouldn't do for David to be consorting with Jews like Minkowski. David did not submit to his father's wishes. He and Minkowski would remain close friends and important colleagues for the rest of their lives.

Many people who hold bigoted views rarely have to give reasons for them, as these views are held by nearly everyone they know. Expressing the exact reason for hating the different among us becomes as unnecessary as expressing the reason for loving chocolate ice cream. Everybody does, so why would anyone even ask?

As personal prejudice became public policy under the Nazis, Hitler wanted a more "scientific anti-Semitism" to become the accepted national position. No one was going to buy that Jews were stupid and incompetent; there were just too many examples of talented Jews around to make that idea fly. Instead, the differences between "German science" and "Jewish science" were highlighted in both Nazi propaganda and scientific journals. The official line was that German science highlighted the practical, while Jewish science was theoretical with little if any practical use.

Sadly for the Nazis, even this distinction wasn't true. Geometry, no matter how abstract it gets, is always not too far away from a physical application, and after David Hilbert, the top German geometer was his student, the Jewish genius Richard Courant, whose two volume calculus text is still the best source for information on that vital topic.

More to the point, when the Nazis spoke of "Jewish science", their public enemy number one was Albert Einstein. Not unlike some current commentators, Hitler made lists of enemies of the culture. His top three villains were Einstein, the novelist Thomas Mann and the composer Kurt Weill. Relativity was considered the pinnacle of theoretical scientific nonsense, and the great scientific controversy of the 20th Century, whether relativity or the competing idea of quantum mechanics is true, became in the mind of the public a cultural battle between the Jew Einstein and the true German scientist Werner Heisenberg.

The thing is, this argument glossed over a very obvious fact. Einstein won the 1921 Nobel Prize for his work on the photoelectric effect. The photoelectric effect is the thing that makes batteries work. Next time you need to switch out the batteries in your TV remote, do what I do and thank Albert Einstein. "Thanks, Albert!" I always say. "Nice fuckin' thinkin', buddy."

Back to Hilbert and Minkowski, when I say that they remained friends for their rest of their lives, the evidence is clear, because Minkowski died at the age of 44 of a burst appendix, and David Hilbert wrote his obituary. The next paragraph is taken from that document.

Since my student time Minkowski was the best and most reliable friend who stuck to me with all the fidelity and deepness of his character. Our science that had brought us together and that was at our hearts appeared to us like a flourishing garden. We loved to detect concealed trails and discovered many prospects which seemed to us beautiful. When one of us showed it to the other and when we admired it jointly our enjoyment was complete. He was a present from heaven to me, as it happens to come only rarely and I can be thankful that I was able to treasure it for such a long time. Suddenly, death has taken him away from our side. But what death can not take is his noble image in our hearts and the awareness that his spirit is acting in us.

None of us have the ability to will ourselves to be David Hilbert, the great genius. Besides hard work, it takes a special spark that only a tiny minority of mankind possess. But we all have the choice in our hearts whether we will be more like David Hilbert or like his father Otto. We need to decide if we will keep our hearts open to kindred spirits regardless of what society might say about the acceptability of another human being.

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Matty Boy said...

While I wanted to make this a post about tolerance, since I mentioned both Einstein and Minkowski, I should bring up that Einstein took eight classes from Minkowski, and the idea of four dimensional space-time is actually credited to Minkowski. While Einstein thought a lot of Minkowski, it was not a mutual admiration society. Minkowski thought Einstein was enthusiastic, but not much of a student, and told Einstein he should switch topics away from physics.

We can't all be geniuses all the time.

dguzman said...

No we can't, Matty. Nice post.

I was really struck by Hitler's shite-list: Einstein, Mann, and Weill? Those guys alone should've been a big red flag to Adolf that he was COMPLETELY WRONG.

I'm blown away by the major mathematicians; how they ever thought of that stuff is simply beyond my comprehension, like trying to figure out how big the universe is. You have amazing minds, you math folk.

sfmike said...

By the way, Weill was a composer, not a lyricist. Brecht, Ogden Nash, and others wrote his lyrics over the years.

Matty Boy said...

Thanks for the catch, mike. I'll make the correction post haste.

Anonymous said...

No doubt hilbert was not only a great scientist but a fine human being who had no patience for anti-semites or other morons

Michael (mbw) said...

Hey, some mistakes:

Batteries do not use the photoelectric effect at all. Photomultiplier tubes do. Photosynthesis and photocells use something with a family resemblance to the photoelectric effect.

Special Relativity and quantum mechanics were not "great rivals". They were both generally accepted by all the competent young physicists. The big step toward integrating them was made by Dirac in 1928. They are now fully integrated in quantum field theory. (General Relativity has not yet been successfully quantized, but that prospective difficulty had nothing to do with the German culture wars.)