Krieg der Frösche und der Màuse (96)

In seinen "Reminiscences from Hilbert’s Göttingen" schreibt Courant,

dass Hilbert dafür bekannt war, die Quellen seiner "Inspiration" nicht

zu nennen, eine - wie man heute betont - unwissenschaftliche Attitüde.

Schur und Fredholm fielen ihr zum Opfer und natürlich Brouwer, der

sich als einziger öffentlich darüber zu beschweren wagte, was ihm wohl

zum Verhàngnis wurde.

Courant schreibt dazu: "It was a big insult: at that time to be an

editor of this distinguished journal did not mean anything, but to be

thrown out as an editor, that was really something", und er beschreibt

dann Hilberts "Vergesslichkeit" so:

[…] it was one of his strengths, but also one of his shortcomings,

that he listened very carefully and caught inspiration, but then

frequently forgot from where his inspiration came. There are two

important instances of this. Once he was traveling in a railroad coach

with some colleagues from a congress when he learned that a

mathematician called F. Schur had discovered that the Euclid system of

axioms was not complete, that great classics of mathematics of this

era. Of course, it went far beyond Schur and beyond anything anybody

else had done, but when later reminded that he had heard this about

Schur, Hilbert could not recall it anymore.

A similar thing happened with the theory of integral equations,

also after a mathematical congress. (At this time I must admit that

mathematical congresses still did make some sense. Times have changed.

At such a congress, not 3,000 but maybe 200 people participated.)

Hilbert learned from somebody on the railroad that a man in Sweden,

Mr. Fredholm, had done something very interesting on integral

equations. Hilbert was reminded of what he had learned from papers by

another Swedish mathematician, Helge von Koch {{das ist der mit der

Schneeflockenkurve, dem ersten Fractal}}, and also from what Poincaré

had written about infinite systems of equations. It stirred up some

latent energy in Hilbert; he forgot the source of his enthusiasm very

quickly and started writing his final, basic, and very important

papers on integral equations. So indeed, Hilbert's theory of integral

equations, one of his greatest achievements, was triggered by a bad

memory, I would say.

It is quite interesting that a good memory and profound and broad

knowledge can be a great impediment. Tycho Brahe knew so much and he

had so many data that he could not make the discoveries which Kepler,

who knew much less, could make because he did not know all the sordid

details. Columbus could discover America only because he was so deeply

ignorant that he didn't know that this was not the way to go to India.

Everybody with some education at the time could have known that

Hilbert had a little bit of this spirit of aggressive adventure in

him. "Never mind what all these people have done, I will do it

independently." This was very much all right, but it did create in

Hilbert's students and assistants a feeling of neglect. A certain duty

exists, after all, for a scientist to pay attention to others and give

them credit. The Göttingen group was famous for the lack of a feeling

of responsibility in this respect. We used to call this process -

learning something, forgetting where you learned it, then perhaps

doing it better yourself, and publishing it without quoting correctly

the process of "nostrification". This was a very important concept in

the Göttingen group.

[R. Courant: The Mathematical Intelligencer, 3, 4, 154 -164]

Gruß, WM

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