Edmund Georg Hermann Landau

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Edmund Georg Hermann Landau


German Mathematician

Noted primarily for his work in number theory, Edmund Landau investigated the distribution of prime numbers and prime ideals. In all, he wrote some 250 papers and books, but his career was cut short by the Nazis' accession to power.

Landau was born in Berlin on February 14, 1877, the son of Leopold (a gynecologist) and Johanna Landau. His father was Jewish, but, like many German Jews of his era, he had become as fully assimilated as possible and embraced German patriotism. Leopold remained committed to Jewish causes, however, and in 1872 helped establish a Jewish academy in Berlin.

Young Edmund studied at Berlin's Französische Gymnasium, or "French School," graduating at the age of 16. He then entered Berlin University, where in 1899 he earned his Ph.D. with a dissertation on number theory, written under the direction of Georg Frobenius (1849-1917). In 1901 Landau began teaching at the university, where his enthusiasm for his subject made him a popular instructor.

In 1903 Landau made his first major contribution to mathematics with his simplification of the proof for Gauss's prime-number theorem, which had been demonstrated independently by Jacques Hadamard (1865-1963) and C. J. de la Vallée-Poussin (1866-1962) in 1896. Landau extended the application of the theorem to algebraic number fields, in particular the distribution of ideal primes within these fields.

Landau married Marianne Ehrlich, daughter of Nobel laureate Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915), in 1905. The couple had four children, two girls and a boy, of whom one died before the age of five. In 1909 Landau took a position as professor of mathematics at the University of Berlin, but in the following year he moved to the University of Göttingen, where he would remain for the rest of his career.

During these years, Landau published a number of books, providing the first systematic discussion of analytical number theory. He continued to be a dynamic lecturer, but his style became more demanding at Göttingen and in some cases elicited complaints from students.

Like his father, Landau remained connected to his Jewish heritage and in 1925 delivered a lecture in Hebrew at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He even considered staying in Jerusalem, but, after a sabbatical in 1927 and 1928, he returned to Göttingen. He continued to publish, bringing together various branches of number theory into one comprehensive form.

Within a few years, the Nazi takeover made Landau's situation at home increasingly uncomfortable. Late in 1933, less than a year after Hitler had assumed the chancellorship, he was forced to leave his post at Göttingen. Though he tried to resume teaching, SS troops were on hand to ensure that his students stayed out of the classroom. By then, the anti-Semitic hysteria had taken on a life of its own and his students sent him a letter explaining that they no longer wished to be indoctrinated in the ways of Jews.

Thus, Landau's career ended abruptly, at a point when he should have been making a smooth transition toward retirement. He did not attempt to leave Germany, although he traveled out of the country to lecture at Cambridge in 1935 and in Brussels in 1937. Unlike many of his fellow Jews at that time, Landau died of natural causes, in Berlin on February 19, 1938.


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