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Lie, Marius Sophus

Lie, Marius Sophus

(b. Nordfjordeide, Norway, 17 December 1842; d. Christiania [now Oslo], Norway, 18 February 1899)


Sophus Lie, as he is known, was the sixth and youngest child of a Lutheran pastor, Johann Herman Lie. He first attended school in Moss (Kristianiafjord), then, from 1857 to 1859, Nissen’s Private Latin School in Christiania. He studied at Christiania University from 1859 to 1865, mainly mathematics and sciences. Although mathematics was taught by such people as Bjerknes and Sylow, Lie was not much impressed. After his examination in 1865, he gave private lessons, became slightly interested in astronomy, and tried to learn mechanics; but he could not decide what to do. The situation changed when, in 1868, he hit upon Poncelet’s and Plücker’s writings.Later, he called himself a student of Plücker’s, although he had never met him. Plücker’s momentous idea to create new geometries by choosing figures other than points—in fact straight lines—as elements of space pervaded all of Lie’s work.

Lie’s first published paper brought him a scholarship for study abroad. He spent the winter of 1869–1870 in Berlin, where he met Felix Klein, whose interest in geometry also had been influenced by Plücker’s work. This acquaintance developed into a friendship that, although seriously troubled in later years, proved crucial for the scientific progress of both men. Lie and Klein had quite different characters as humans and mathematicians: the algebraist Klein was fascinated by the peculiarities of charming problems; the analyst Lie, parting from special cases, sought to understand a problem in its appropriate generalization.

Lie and Klein spent the summer of 1870 in Paris, where they became acquainted with Darboux and Camille Jordan. Her Lie, influenced by the ideas of the French “anallagmatic” school, discovered his famous contact transformation, which maps straight lines into spheres and principal tangent curves into curvature lines. He also became familiar with Monge’s theory of differential equations. At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in July, Klein left Paris; Lie, as a Norwegian, stayed. In August he decided to hike to Italy but was arrested near Fontainebleau as a spy. After a month in prison, he was freed through Darboux’s Intervention. Just before the Germans blockaded Paris, he escaped to Italy. From there he returned to Germany, where he again met Klein.

In 1871 Lie was awarded a scholarship to Christiania University. He also taught at Nissen’s Private Latin School. In July 1872 he received his Ph.D. During this period he developed the integration theory of partial differential equations now found in many textbooks, although rarely under his name. Lie’s results were found at the same time by Adolph Mayer, with whom he conducted a lively correspondence. Lie’s letters are a valuable source of knowledge about his development.

In 1872 a chair in mathematics was created for him at Christiania University, In 1873 Lie turned from the invariants of contact transformations to the principles of the theory of transformation groups. Together with Sylow he assumed the editorship of Niels Abel’s works. In 1874 Lie married Anna Birch, who bore him two sons and a daughter.

His main interest turned to transformation groups, his most celebrated creation, although in 1876 he returned to differential geometry. In the same year he joined G. O. Sars and Worm Müller in founding the Archir för mathenratik og naturvidenskab. In 1882 the work of Halphen and Laguerre on differential invariants led Lie to resume his investigations on transformation groups.

Lie was quite isolated in Christiania. He had no students interested in his research. Abroad, except for Klein, Mayer, and somewhat later Picard, nobody paid attention to his work. In 1884 Klein and Mayer induced F. Engel, who had just received his Ph.D., to visit Lie in order to learn about transformation groups and to help him write a comprehensive book on the subject. Engel stayed nine months with Lie. Thanks to his activity the work was accomplished, its three parts being published between 1888 and 1893, whereas Lie’s other great projects were never completed. F. Hausdorff, whom Lie had chosen to assist him in preparing a work on contact transformations and partial differential equations, got interested in quite different subjects.

This happened after 1886 when Lie had succeeded Klein at Leipzig, where, indeed, he found students, among whom was G. Seheffers. With him Lie published textbooks on transformation groups and on differential equations, and a fragmentary geometry of contact transformations. In the last years of his life Lie turned to foundations of geometry, which at that time meant the Helmholtz space problem.

In 1889 Lie, who was described as an open-hearted man of gigantic stature and excellent physical health, was struck by what was then called neurasthenia. Treatment in a mental hospital led to his recovery, and in 1890 lie could resume his work. His character, however, had changed greatly. He became increasingly sensitive, irascible, suspicious, and misanthropic, despite the many tokens of recognition that were heaped upon him.

Meanwhile, his Norwegian friends sought to lure him back to Norway. Another special chair in mathematics was created for him at Christiania University, and in September 1898 he moved there. He died of pernicious anemia the following February. His papers have been edited, with excellent annotations, by F. Engel and P. Heegaard.

Lie’s first papers dealt with very special subjects in geometry, more precisely, in differential geometry. In comparison with his later performances, they seem like classroom exercises; but they are actually the seeds from which his great theories grew. Change of the space element and related mappings, the lines of a complex considered as solutions of a differential equation, special contact transformations, and trajectories of special groups prepared his theory of partial differential equations, contact transformations, and transformation groups. He often returned to this less sophisticated differential geometry. His bestknown discoveries of this kind during his later years concern minimal surfaces.

The crucial idea that emerged from his preliminary investigations was a new choice of space element, the contact element: an incidence pair of point and line or, in n dimensions, of point and hyperplane, The manifold of these elements was now studied, not algebraically, as Klein would have done—and actually did—but analytically or, rather, from the standpoint of differential geometry. The procedure of describing a line complex by a partial differential equation was inverted: solving the first-order partial differential equation

means fibering the manifold F(x, x1, … ,xn-1, p1, …, pn-1) = 0 of (2n – 1)-space by n-submanifolds on which the Pfaffian equation dx = p1dx + … + pn-1dxn-1 prevails. This Pfaffian equation was interpreted geometrically: it means the incidence of the contact elements x, x1, …, xn-1, p1, …, pn-1 and x + dx, x1 + dx1, …, xn-1 + dxn-1, p1 + dp1, …, pn-1 + dpn-1. This incidence notion was sostrongly suggested by the geometry of complexes (or, as one would say today, by symplectic geometry) that Lie never bothered to state it explicitly. Indeed, if it is viewed in the related 2n-vector space instead of (2n + 1)-projective space, incidence means what is called conjugateness with respect to a skew form. It was one of Lie’s idiosyncrasies that he never made this skew form explicit, even after Frobenius had introduced it in 1877; obviously Lie did not like it because lie had missed it. It is another drawback that Lie adhered mainly to projective formulations in (2n – 1)-space, which led to clumsy formulas as soon as things had to be presented analytically; homogeneous formulations in 2n-space are more elegant and make the ideas much clearer, so they will be used in the sequel such that the partial differential equation is written as F(x1, …,xn, pn, …pn) = 0, with p1dx1, + … + pndx1 as the total differential of the nonexplicit unknown variable. Then the skew form (the Frobenius covariant) has the shape Σ(δpidxidpiδxi).

A manifold z = f(x1, …,xn) in (n + 1)-space, if viewed in the 2n-space of contact elements, makes Σpidxi a complete differential, or,in geometrical terms, neighboring contact elements in this manifold are incident. But there are more such n-dimensional Elemenivereine :a k-dimensional manifold in (n + 1)-space with all its n-dimensional tangent spaces shares this property. It was an important step to deal with all these Elementvereine on the same footing, for it led to an illuminating extension of the differential equation problem and to contact transformations. Finding a complete solution of the differential equation now amounted to fibering the manifold F = 0 by n-dimensional Elementvereine. In geometrical terms the Lagrange-Monge-Pfafl Cauchy theory (which is often falsely ascribed to Hamilton and Jacobi) was refashioned: to every point of F = 0 the skew form assigns one tangential direction that is conjugate to the whole (2n – 1)-dimensional tangential plane. Integrating this field of directions, or otherwise solving the system of ordinary differential equations

one obtains a fibering of F = 0 into curves, the “characteristic strips,” closely connected to the Monge curves (touching the Monge cones). Thus it became geometrically clear why every complete solution also had to be fibered by characteristic strips.

Here the notion of contact transformation came in. First suggested by special instances, it was conceived of as a mapping that conserves the incidence of neighboring contact elements. Analytically, this meant invariance of Σpidxi up to a total differential. The characteristic strips appeared as the trajectories of such a contact transformation:

Thus characteristic strips must be incident everywhere as soon as they are so in one point. This led to a geometric reinterpretation of Cauchy’s construction of one solution of the partial differential equation. From one (n - 1)-dimensional Elementverein on F = 0, which is easily found, one had to issue all characteristic strips. But even a complete solution was obtained in this way: by cross-secting the system of characteristics, the figure was lowered by two dimensions in order to apply induction. Solving the partial differential equation was now brought back to integrating systems of ordinary equations of, subsequently, 2, 4,…, 2n variables. In comparison with older methods, this was an enormous reduction of the integration job, which at the same time was performed analytically by Adoiph Mayer.

With the Poisson brackets (F,·) viewed as contact transformations, Jacobi’s integration theory of systems

Fj(x1, …,xn, p1, …pn)= 0

was reinterpreted and simplified. Indeed, (F,·Fj) is nothing but the commutator of the related contact transformations. The notion of transformation group, although not yet explicitly formulated, was already active in Lie’s unconscious. The integrability condition (where the are functions) was indeed closely connected to group theory ideas, and it is not surprising that Lie called such a system a group. The theory of these “function groups,” which was thoroughly developed for use in partial differential equations and contact transformations, was the last stepping-stone to the theory of transformation groups, which was later applied in differential equations.

Lie’s integration theory was the result of marvelous geometric intuitions. The preceding short account is the most direct way to present it. The usual way is a rigmarole of formulas, even in the comparatively excellent book of Engel and Faber. Whereas transformation groups have become famous as Lie groups, his integration theory is not as well known as it deserves to be. To a certain extent this is Lie’s own fault. The nineteenth-century mathematical public often could not understand lucid abstract ideas if they were not expressed in the analytic language of that time, even if this language would not help to make things clearer. So Lie, a poor analyst in comparison with his ablest contemporaries, had to adapt and express in a host of formulas, ideas which would have been said better without them. It was Lie’s misfortune that by yielding to this urge, he rendered his theories obscure to the geometricians and failed to convince the analysts.

About 1870 group theory became fashionable. In 1870 C. Jordan published his Traité des substitutions, and two years later Klein presented his Erlanger Programm. Obviously Klein and Lie must have discussed group theory early. Nevertheless, to name a certain set of (smooth) mappings of (part of)n space, depending on r parameters, a group was still a new way of speaking. Klein, with his background in the theory of invariants, of course thought of very special groups, as his Erlanger Programm and later works prove. Lie, however, soon turned to transformation groups in general—finite continuous groups, as he christened them (“finite” because of the finite number of parameters, and “continuous” because at that time this included differentiability of any order wanted). Today they are called Lie groups. In the mid-1870’s this theory was completed, although its publication would take many years.

Taking derivatives (velocity fields) at identity in all directions creates the infinitesimal transformations of the group, which together form the infinitesimal group. The first fundamental theorem, providing a necessary and sufficient condition, tells how the derivatives at any parameter point a1,…,ar are linearly combined from those at identity. The second fundamental theorem says that the infinitesimal transformations will and should form what is today called a Lie algebra,

with some structure constants . Antisymmetry and Jacobi associativity yield the relations

between the structure constants. It cost Lie some trouble to prove that these relations were also sufficient.

From these fundamental theorems the theory was developed extensively. The underlying abstract group, called the parameter group, showed up. Differential invariants were investigated, and automorphism groups of differential equations were used as tools of solution. Groups in a plane and in 3-space were classified, “Infinite continuous” groups were also considered, with no remarkable success, then and afterward. Lie dreamed of a Galois theory of differential equations but did not really succeed, since he could not explain what kind of ausführbare operations should correspond to the rational ones of Galois theory and what solving meant in the case of a differential equation with no nontrivial automorphisms. Nevertheless, it was an inexhaustible and promising subject.

Gradually, quite a few mathematicians became interested in the subject, First, of course, was Lie’s student Engel. F. Schur then gave another proof of the third fundamental theorem (1889–1890), which led to interesting new views; L. Maurer refashioned the proofs of all fundamental theorems (1888–1891); and Picard and Vessiot developed Galois theories of differential equations (1883, 1891). The most astonishing fact about Lie groups, that their abstract structure was determined by the purely algebraic phenomenon of their structure constants, led to the most important investigations. First were those of Wilhelm Killing, who tried to classify the simple Lie groups. This was a tedious job, and he erred more than once. This made Lie furious, and according to oral tradition he is said to have warned one of his students who was leaving: “Farewell, and if ever you meet that s.o.b,, kill him.” Although belittled by Lie and some of his followers, Killing’s work was excellent. It was revised by Cartan, who after staying with Lie wrote his famous thesis (1894). For many years Cartan—gifted with Lie’s geometric intuition and, although trained in the French tradition, as incapable as Lie of explaining things clearly was the greatest, if not the only, really important mathematician who continued Lie’s tradition in all his fields. But Cartan was isolated. Weyl’s papers of 1922–1923 marked the revival of Lie groups. In the 1930’s Lie’s local approach gave way to a global one. The elimination of differentiability conditions in Lie groups took place between the 1920’s and 1950’s. Chevalley’s development of algebraic groups was a momentous generalization of Lie groups in the 1950’s. Lie algebras, replacing ordinary associativity by Jacobi associativity, became popular among algebraists from the 1940’s. Lie groups now play an increasingly important part in quantum physics. The joining of topology to algebra on the most primitive level, as Lie did, has shown its creative power in this century.

In 1868 Hermann von Helmholtz formulated his space problem, an attempt to replace Euclid’s foundations of geometry with group-theoretic ones, although in fact groups were never explicitly mentioned in that paper. In 1890 Lie showed that Helmholtz’s formulations were unsatisfactory and that his solution was defective. His work on this subject, now called the Helmholtz-Lie space problem, is one of the most beautiful applications of Lie groups. In the I950’s and 1960’s it was reconsidered in a topological setting.


I. Original Works. Lie’s collected papers were published as Gesammelte Abhandlungen, F. Engel and P. Hee-gaard, eds., 6 vols, in 11 pts. (Leipzig-Oslo, 1922–1937). His writings include Theorie der Transformationsgruppen, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1888-1893), on which Engel collaborated; Vorlcsungcn über Differentialgleichungen mit bekannten infinitesimalen Transformational (Leipzig, 1891), written with G. Scbeffers; Varlesungm Uber conlinuierliche Gruppenmit geometrischen und anderen Anwendungen (Leipzig, 1893), written with G. Scheters; and Geometrie der Berührungstransformationen (Leipzig, 1896), written with G. Scheffers.

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Lie or his work are F. Engel, “Sophus Lie,” in Jahresbericht der Deutschen Matematiker-Vereinigung, 8 (1900), 30–46; and Noether, “Sophus Lie,” in Mathematische Annalen, 53 (1900), 1-41.

Hans Freudenthal

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"Lie, Marius Sophus." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Lie, Marius Sophus." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (December 12, 2017).

"Lie, Marius Sophus." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from

Lie, Marius Sophus


(b. Nordfjordeide, Norway, 17 December 1842; d. Christiania [now Oslo], Norway, 18 February 1899),

mathematics. For the original article on Lie see DSB, vol. 8.

Hans Freudenthal’s essay in the original DSB offers a perceptive account of Lie’s mathematical interests, the conflicts he experienced, and those parts of his legacy of greatest importance for the mathematics of the twentieth century. As a leading expert on topological groups and geometric aspects of exceptional Lie groups, Freudenthal had a deep appreciation of modern Lie theory. At the same time, his familiarity with Lie’s original ideas enabled him to recognize the yawning gap that separated Lie’s grandiose vision from that which he and his disciples were able to realize. Freudenthal was less familiar with Lie’s biography (Lie had two daughters and one son), and he relied to some extent on folklore, as in his recounting of Lie’s hostility toward Wilhelm Killing. Since then much new documentary evidence has become available that helps clarify important episodes in Lie’s career.

Background to Conflicts . During his lifetime Lie was a highly controversial figure, and his legend lives on in Norway even in the early twenty-first century. As new facets of his life and work have been brought to light, a picture emerges of a brilliant but troubled man whose career was filled with inner and outer conflicts. His long-forgotten early work with Felix Klein has been reexamined, leading to new assessments of their partnership and its significance for Lie’s gradual immersion in the theory of continuous groups. Lie’s work in this field eventually spawned what became modern Lie theory, a field of central importance for quantum mechanics. Yet while nearly every theoretical physicist knows about Lie groups, certainly very few have ever read a word of his work. In his pioneering studies, Thomas Hawkins helps remedy that problem. Hawkins not only uncovers the main sources of Lie’s

inspiration but he also lays bare the thorny paths followed afterward by numerous others—Killing, Georg Frobenius, Issai Schur, Élie Cartan, Hermann Weyl, and others— whose work created the modern theory of Lie groups. None of these figures, to be sure, was allied with Lie’s Leipzig school; indeed, Killing and Frobenius, both trained in Berlin, actively opposed Lie’s claims to authority.

Lie drew on two main sources of inspiration in developing his ideas for a theory of continuous groups. The first involved a wide range of geometrical problems that culminated with his discovery of the line-to-sphere transformation in 1870, a breakthrough that opened the way to his investigations on general contact transformations. Much of this work was undertaken in collaboration with Klein, whose “Erlangen Programm” of 1872 (Vergleichende Betrachtungen über neuere geometrische Forsuchungen) strongly reflects the impact of Lie’s ideas. Soon afterward Lie found a second major source of inspiration in Carl Gustav Jacob’s analytic methods in the theory of differential equations. In this he was aided by the Leipzig analyst Adolf Mayer, who encouraged Lie to translate his geometric ideas into the language of Jacobian analysis. By 1874 Mayer had become Lie’s most important mathematical resource.

Part of the tragedy surrounding Sophus Lie’s life stemmed from his involvement in clashes between prominent mathematicians, many of whom were associated with leading mathematical schools in Germany. Avoiding such entanglements would have been virtually impossible because of his close association with Klein, Leipzig’s controversial professor of geometry during the early 1880s. Against strong opposition, both within the Leipzig faculty and in Berlin, Klein managed to orchestrate Lie’s appointment as his successor in 1886. From the moment the Norwegian arrived, Leipzig’s senior mathematician, Carl Neumann, sought to undermine his position by offering courses and seminars on geometrical topics. Nevertheless, during the course of his twelve-year tenure there, Lie managed to build up an important school whose members specialized in one facet or another of the master’s vast research program. Still, he paid a heavy personal price in exchanging the calm tranquillity of Christiania, where he held a parliamentary professorship since 1872, for the dreary urban life he encountered in Leipzig. He found his teaching responsibilities time-consuming, particularly because of difficulties with the German language, and he worried about his wife’s health after a tumor was detected in one of her breasts. On top of these daily pressures, he became concerned about a new competitor who suddenly appeared on the horizon: Wilhelm Killing.

Lie had always been suspicions of potential rivals— the French geometers Gaston Darboux and Georges Halphen being two notable cases—but these feelings intensified and spread once he arrived in Leipzig, a far more competitive environment than Christiania. By 1888 he was deeply convinced that his principal disciple, Friedrich Engel, had betrayed his trust. Thus began a long, painful period during which Lie gradually broke off relations with nearly all his friends and supporters in Germany. It was this factor—betrayal, whether real or imagined—that played a major role during the last decade of Lie’s ultimately tragic life.

Illness . Initially no apparent signs of conflict arose when Killing met with Lie and Engel in the summer of 1886. Lie presumably knew all along that Engel had been writing to Killing and hoped that the latter’s work would enhance the stature of his theory. He changed his mind, however, in early 1888 when he saw the first installment of Killing’s four-part study in Mathematische Annalen. Lie wrote to Klein: “Mr. Killing’s work … is a gross outrage against me, and I hold Engel responsible. He has certainly also worked on the proof corrections” (Rowe, 1988, p. 41). Lie concluded that too many of his ideas had been communicated to Killing by Engel, ideas Lie regarded as his exclusive intellectual property. His relationship with Engel never fully recovered from this bitter episode.

The following year Lie had to be placed in a psychological clinic as he could no longer sleep at night. His wife brought him home in the summer of 1890, but his condition did not improve until long afterward. This dark interlude strongly colored the last decade of Lie’s life. Whether or not it affected Lie’s personality, as Freudenthal wrote based on Engel’s original claims, it undoubtedly affected the way he saw the world and especially his relationships within the German mathematical community.

Conflict with Klein . During the period 1889–1892, when Lie was severely depressed, Klein was returning to several topics in geometry that he had pursued twenty years earlier, the period when he had collaborated closely with Lie. He was also approached by the algebraic geometer Corrado Segre, whose student, Gino Fano, prepared an Italian translation of Klein’s “Erlangen Programm” from 1872. This famous survey underscored the role of transformation groups and their invariants in geometry; indeed, it proclaimed that all other aspects (even the dimension of the manifold in question) were of secondary significance for geometrical studies. Soon afterward, the Erlangen program appeared in French and English translations, and Klein wanted to republish it in German too, along with several of Lie’s earlier works.

By calling attention to this earlier work, Klein hoped to draw the lines between the intuitive geometric style of mathematics he favored and the dominant research ethos of the period, typified by the trend toward “arithmetization” as practiced in Berlin by Karl Weierstrass and Leopold Kronecker. Lie had become very troubled by Klein’s sudden interest in resurrecting their earlier work, and he became increasingly distrustful of the Göttingen mathematician’s schemes. Yet he failed to signal these concerns to Klein, who continued to view Lie as his principal ally in an ongoing battle with the Berlin mathematicians. Klein hoped their alliance was still intact in the late summer of 1893 when he delivered his Evanston Colloquium Lectures, two of which gave a highly personal synopsis of Lie’s mathematics in which he emphasized the geometrical inspiration behind Lie’s work on continuous groups as well as differential equations.

These circumstances loomed in the background when Klein began pressuring Lie regarding his plan to republish their earlier work in Mathematische Annalen. Klein even wrote two drafts for an introductory essay on their collaboration during the period 1869–1872 only to learn that Lie profoundly disagreed with his portrayal of these events. Lie rightly noted that his own subsequent research program had little to do with Klein’s Erlangen program. Had he confined his critical remarks to their private correspondence, few probably would have known that his relationship with Klein had by this time soured completely. Instead, however, he chose to “set the record straight” in the introduction to the third volume of his treatise on transformation groups (all three were largely written by Engel) by proclaiming: “I am no pupil of Klein’s. Nor is the reverse the case, even though it perhaps comes closer to the truth. I value Klein’s talent highly and will never forget the sympathetic interest with which he has always followed my scientific endeavors. But I do not feel that he has a satisfactory understanding of the difference between induction and proof, or between a concept and its application” (Lie, 1893, p. xvii). These remarks, not surprisingly, scandalized many within Klein’s extensive network, but several others were also criticized by name, including Hermann von Helmholtz, Joseph-Marie de Tilly, Ferdinand von Lindemann, and Killing.

Although prone to outbursts, Lie was tenaciously firm when it came to protecting what he regarded as his intellectual property rights. During the years following his estrangement from Engel, he acquired the services of a new assistant, Georg Scheffers, who edited several of Lie’s lecture courses for publication. Reacting to the volume on Lie’s theory of contact transformations prepared by Scheffers, Klein privately expressed these revealing remarks:

That is the true Lie, as he was from 1869–1872, supplemented and completed by careful historical and comparative studies along with excellent drawings by Scheffers. But he breaks off everywhere where my complementary investigations or our collaborative work begins. Why? That’s the spirit of latent jealousy. The impression could otherwise possibly arise that I had some kind of share in the ideas that Lie regards as his exclusive property. (Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, Cod. Ms. F. Klein, 22f)

The Turn to France . Much to Klein’s chagrin, Lie lost all interest in the German domestic scene and turned toward France, where the younger generation showed a keen interest in his group-theoretic approach to differential equations. Lie’s interest in the reactions of the French community went hand in hand with growing disillusionment with the reception of his work in the German mathematical world. Craving recognition for his theory, he was not content with the kind of support he got from the likes of Engel and Eduard Study, whom he regarded as marginal figures in the German mathematical community. Darboux had shown an early interest in Lie’s work, and in 1888 he encouraged two graduates of the École Normale, Vladimir de Tannenberg and Ernest Vessiot, to study with Lie in Leipzig. Vessiot, following the lead of Émile Picard, took up Lie’s original vision, namely to develop a Galois theory of differential equations. Nearly all the French mathematicians were primarily interested in applications of Lie’s theory, not in the structure theory itself; even Cartan shared this viewpoint to some extent.

This open-minded attitude of the Parisian community to Lie’s theory contrasted sharply with the rejection voiced by Frobenius, who became Berlin’s leading mathematician after Weierstrass retired in 1892. The latter considered Lie’s work—presumably in the form presented by Engel in Theorie der Transformationsgruppen—so wobbly that it would have to be reworked from the ground up. Frobenius went even further, claiming that even if it could be made into a rigorous theory, Lie’s approach to differential equations represented a retrograde step compared with the more natural and elegant techniques for solving differential equations developed by Leonhard Euler and Joseph-Louis Lagrange. Needless to say, the leading French mathematicians felt otherwise. Among the younger generation, Cartan, whose work was directly linked to Killing’s, showed the strongest affinity for the abstract problems associated with Lie’s theory.

In the original DSB article, Freudenthal suggests that Lie tried “to adapt and express in a host of formulas, ideas which would have been better without them.… [For] by yielding to this urge, he rendered his theories obscure to the geometricians and failed to convince the analysts” (p. 325). Leaving aside the issue of whether or not Lie himself felt any urge to dress up his theory for analysts, there can be no doubt that he sought their recognition. Lie had long bemoaned his isolation in Norway, and he felt frustrated over the difficulties he encountered in trying to gain an audience for his work. His two most trusted allies in Germany, Klein and his Leipzig colleague Mayer, were well aware of these circumstances. Presumably both reached the conclusion that Lie’s mathematics had to be made more palatable for analysts—particularly those closely associated with Weierstrass’s school in Berlin—and together they counseled young Engel to carry out this plan.

As the “ghostwriter” of Lie’s three volumes on the theory of transformation groups, Engel clearly played a major role in this endeavor. Whether or not Lie valued this effort, he apparently never felt quite at home with the results. According to his student Gerhard Kowalewski, when discussing his work Lie never referred to the three volumes written by Engel, with their “function-theoretic touch,” but rather always cited his own papers. This suggests that the “true Lie”—to take up Klein’s image— should not be sought in the volumes produced with Engel’s assistance but rather in his own earlier papers.

Kowalewski, Klein, and Engel were fascinated by Lie’s powerful, Nordic mathematical persona; all three left lively recollections of their encounters with him. Numerous others, including his many students, bore witness to his brilliant originality. Yet despite his numerous achievements, the recognition he received from his many pupils and admirers, and the honors and accolades accorded him by distinguished societies, he spent the last years of his life trying to frame his place in the history of mathematics as Évariste Galois’s true successor and Norway’s “second [Niels Henrik] Abel.” After Lie’s death, Engel devoted the last twenty years of his life to preparing the publication of Lie’s collected works in six volumes. The seventh volume appeared only many years afterward in 1960, but the editors chose to omit Engel’s essay on the conflict between Klein and Lie.



Theorie der Transformationsgruppen. Bd. 3. Leipzig, Germany: Teubner, 1893.


Hawkins, Thomas. Emergence of the Theory of Lie Groups: An Essay in the History of Mathematics, 1869–1926. Berlin, Heidelberg, and New York: Springer-Verlag, 2000. Surveys the broader development of Lie theory.

Rowe, David E. “Der Briefwechsel Sophus Lie–Felix Klein, eine Einsicht in ihre persönlichen und wissenschaftlichen Beziehungen.” NTM 25, no. 11 (1988): 37–47. Discusses Lie’s conflicts with Killing and Klein.

Stubhaug, Arild. The Mathematician Sophus Lie: It Was the Audacity of My Thinking. Translated by Richard H. Daly. Berlin, Heidelberg, and New York: Springer-Verlag, 2002. Contains many heretofore unknown aspects of Lie’s life.

David E. Rowe

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"Lie, Marius Sophus." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from

Lie, Marius Sophus

Marius Sophus Lie (mä´rēŏŏs sō´fŏŏs lē), 1842–99, Norwegian mathematician. He is noted for his contributions to the theories of differential equations and continuous transformation groups.

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