Mathematician, Physicist, Engineer, Scholar (1873 – 1950)
Constantin Caratheodory was the greatest Greek mathematician since antiquity and one of the most influential mathematicians of the 20th century. He lived and worked primarily in Germany, where, as a polymath, was involved with physics, languages, engineering, archeology, politics and most importantly mathematics. He is the only Greek to have been awarded the title of Member of the German Academy of Sciences to date.
He was born in Berlin in 1873 to a Greek noble family and studied engineering in Belgium. Prior to this, Caratheodory had won twice the first prize in mathematical competitions consecutively of all Gymnasiums of Germany. In 1889 he went to work in Egypt as an engineer in the dam of Aswan. His love for mathematics, however, made his return to Berlin and study mathematics. In 1905 he became an associate professor in the University of Gottingen, Germany while in 1909 he became professor in the University of Hanover. Finally in 1918 he became chairman of the department of mathematics in the University of Berlin.
In 1920 he was invited by then Prime Minister of Greece Eleutherios Venizelos to organize the Greek University of Smyrna. His attempts, although highly successful, were short-lived and Caratheodory barely managed to save his own life during the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922. Nevertheless, he managed to salvage the school’s library and transport it to Athens, whereupon he assumed the position of full-time professor in the University of Athens in 1923 and later in the National Technical University. In 1924, Caratheodory was appointed professor of mathematics in the University of Munich. Throughout the years he would teach in various prestigious universities worldwide such as in Breslau, Harvard, California etc.
In 1930 Caratheodory was reinvited by Eleutherios Venizelos to reorganize the administration of the University of Athens and the University of Thessaloniki. For 50 years, the two universities functioned successfully thanks to Caratheodory’s administrative system. Two years later, he resigned from his position in the Greek universities and moved back to the University of Munich, in contempt for his fellow professors’ envy against him. He would remain in Munich for the rest of his life, where he indulged in mathematics and made some of the most groundbreaking mathematical discoveries in the history of mankind.
Caratheodory had over 60 scientific publications in his academic career. His most significant contributions to mathematics were in the calculus of variations, in the theory of real functions, set theory, geometry, calculus, complex numbers and mathematical analysis. Moreover, he created new theorems, most of which today bear his name and solved mathematical problems that troubled mathematicians such as Gauss and Euler for hundreds of years. In physics, Caratheodory was involved with geometric optics, statistical mechanics, entropy and primarily with thermodynamics. Some modern physicists consider Caratheodory today as the Father of Thermodynamics.
Caratheodory is known to have been the mentor and teacher of Nobel-prize winning physicist Albert Einstein, according to Einstein’s own statements. Einstein first contacted Caratheodory in 1916, seeking his help to solve mathematical problems that for Caratheodory were “classical”. The later answered in 10 days. Einstein would often seek Caratheodory’s advices on mathematical issues since Einstein’s knowledge on mathematics were poor. It was Constantine Caratheodory who helped Einstein complete the theory of relativity, since Caratheodory had also been heavily involved with it himself. It was in 1924 when he published his magnum opus of physics Axiomatic on the special theory of relativity. In his final interview, Albert Einstein confessed: “You ask me to answer to all sorts of questions, but no one has ever wanted to know who was my teacher, who showed me the way to the higher mathematical science, thought and research. I simply say that my teacher was the unrivalled Greek Konstantinos Karatheodoris, to who we owe everything…”.
The “new Euclid” as he was called by Jules Vern when he was only 10 years old, the man who spoke 6 languages as well as ancient languages fluently never stopped working in mathematics. Even a few days before his death at the age of 77, Caratheodory was on his desk, researching new mathematics. He was a flaming patriot who, in spite of the fact that he only visited Greece twice in his lifetime, in his older years he combined engineering, his original studies, with his love, archeology and published important mathematical papers on the bases of the columns of the Parthenon.
Caratheodory achieved worldwide eminence in the field of mathematics and physics, except in Greece. When Einstein asked him to solve for him “… the problem with the closed lines of time…” and Caratheodory solved it, Einstein replied: “I kneel before you”.
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- “Karatheodoris, Konstantinos”. Helios New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Passas, I. Athens, 1946. Print.