1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Riemann, Georg Friedrich Bernhard
RIEMANN, GEORG FRIEDRICH BERNHARD (1826–1866), German mathematician, was born on the 17th of September 1826, at Breselenz, near Dannenberg in Hanover. His father, Friedrich Bernhard Riemann, came from Mecklenburg, had served in the war of freedom, and had finally settled as pastor in Quickborn. Here with his five brothers and sisters Riemann spent his boyhood and received, chiefly from his father, the elements of his education. He showed at an early age well marked mathematical powers, and his progress was so rapid in arithmetic and geometry that he was soon beyond the guidance not only of his father but of schoolmaster Schulz, who assisted in the mathematical department of his training.
In 1840 he went to Hanover, where he attended the lyceum, and two years later he entered the Johanneum at Ltineburg. The director, Schmalfuss, encouraged him in his mathematical studies by lending him books (among them Leonhard Euler's works and Adrien Marie Legendre's Theory of Numbers), which Riemann read, mastered and returned within a few days. In 1846 Riemann entered himself as a student of philology and theology in the university of Gottingen. This choice of a university career was dictated more by the natural desire of his father to see his son enter his own profession, and by the poverty of his family, than by his own preference. He attended lectures on the numerical solution of equations and on definite integrals by M. A. Stern, on terrestrial magnetism by Goldschmidt, and on the method of least squares by K. F. Gauss. It soon became evident that his mathematical studies, undertaken at first probably as a relaxation, were destined to be the chief business of his life. He proceeded in the beginning of 1847 to Berlin, attracted thither by that brilliant constellation of mathematical genius whose principal stars were P. G. L. Dirichlet, C. G. J. Jacobi, I. Steiner and F. G. M. Eisenstein. He appears to have attended Dirichlet's lectures on theory of numbers, theory of definite integrals, and partial differential equations, and Jacobi's on analytical mechanics and higher algebra. It was during this period that he first formed those ideas on the theory of functions of a complex variable which led to most of his great discoveries. One stirring social incident at least marked this part of his life, for, during the revolutionary insurrection in March 1848, the young mathematician, as a member of a company of student volunteers, kept guard in the royal palace from 9 o'clock on the morning of the 24th of March till 1 o'clock on the afternoon of the following day.
In 1850 he returned to Gijttingen and began to prepare his doctor's dissertation, busying himself meanwhile with “ Naturphilosophic ”, and experimental physics. This double cultivation of his scientific powers had the happiest effect on his subsequent-work; for the greatest achievements of Riemann were effected by the application in pure mathematics generally of a method (theory of potential) which had up to thisjtime been used solely in the solution of certain problems that arise in mathematical physics.
In November 1851 he obtained his doctorate, the thesis being “Grundlagen für eine allgemeine Theorie der Functionen einer veranderlichen complex en Grosse.” This memoir excited the admiration of Gauss, and at once marked its author's rank as a mathematician. The fundamental method of research which Riemann employed has just been alluded to; the results will be best indicated in his own words:-
“The methods in use hitherto for treating functions of a complex variable always started from an expression for the function as its definition, whereby its value was given for every value of the argument; by our investigation it has been shown that, in consequence of the general character of a function of a complex variable, in a definition of this sort one part of the determining conditions is a consequence of the rest, and the extent of the determining conditions has been reduced to what is necessary to effect the determination. This essentially simplifies the treatment of such functions. Hitherto, in order to prove the equality of two expressions for the same function, it was necessary to transform the one into the other, i.e. to show that both expressions agreed for every value of the variable; now it is sufficient to prove their agreement to a far less extent" [merely in certain critical points and at certain boundaries].
The time between his promotion to the doctorate and his habilitation as Privatdozent was occupied by researches undertaken for his Habilitationsschrift, by' “ N aturphilosophie, ” and by experimental work. The subject he had chosen for his Habilitationsschrift was the “ Representation of a Function by Means of a Trigonometrical Series, ” a subject which Dirichlet had made his own by a now well-known series of researches. It was fortunate, no doubt, for Riemann that he had the kind advice and encouragement of Dirichlet himself, who was then on a visit at Gottingen during the preparation of his essay; but the result was a memoir of such originality and refinement as showed that the pupil was fully the equal of the master. Of the customary three themes which he suggested for his trial lecture, that “ On the Hypotheses which form the Foundation of Geometry” was chosen at the instance of Gauss, who was curious to hear what so young a man had to say on this difficult subject, on which he himself had in private speculated so profoundly (see Geometry, Non-Euclidian).
In 1855 Gauss died and was succeeded by Dirichlet, who along with others made an effort to obtain Riemann's nomination as extraordinary professor. In this they were not successful; but a government stipend of zoo thalers was given him, and even this miserable pittance, was of great importance, so straitened were his circumstances. But this small beginning of good fortune was embittered by the deaths of his father and his eldest sister, and by the breaking up of the home at Quickborn. Meantime he was lecturing and writing the great memoir (Borchardfs Journal, vol. liv., 1857) in which he applied the theory developed in his doctor's dissertation to the Abelian functions. It is amusing to find him speaking jubilantly of the unexpectedly large audience of eight which assembled to hear his first lecture (in 1854) on partial differential equations and their application to physical problems.
Riemann's health had never been strong. Even in his boyhood he had shown symptoms of consumption, the disease that was working such havoc in his family; and now under the strain of work he broke down altogether, and had to retire to the Harz with his friends Ritter and R. Dedekind, where he gave himself up to excursions and “ Naturphilosophie.” After his return to Gottingen (November 1857) he was made extraordinary professor, and his salary raised to 300 thalers. As usual with him, misfortune followed close behind; for he lost in quick succession his brother Wilhelm and another sister. In 1859 he lost his friend Dirichlet; but his reputation was now so well established that he was at once appointed to succeed him. Well-merited honours began to reach him; and in 1860 he visited Paris, and met with a warm reception there. He, married Elise Koch in June 1862, but the following month he had an attack of pleurisy which proved the beginning of a long illness that ended only with his death. His physician recommended a sojourn in Italy, for the benefit of his health, and Weber and Sartorius von Waltershausen obtained from the government leave of absence and means to defray the cost of the journey. At first it seemed that he would recover; but on his return in June 1863 he caught cold on the Spliigen Pass, and in August of the same year had to go back to Italy. In November 1865 he returned again to Gottingen, but, although he was able to live through the winter, and even to work. a few hours every day, it became clear to his friends, and clearest of all to himself, that he was dying. In order to husband his few remaining days he resolved in June 1866 to return once more to Italy. Thither he journeyed through the confusion of the first days of the Austro-Prussian War, and settled in a villa at Selasca near Intra on Lago Maggiore. Here his strength rapidly ebbed away, but his mental faculties remained brilliant to the last. On the 10th of July 1866 he was working at his last unfinished investigation on the mechanism of the ear. The day following he died. Few as were the years of work allotted to him, and few as are the printed pages covered by the record of his researches, his name is, and will remain, a household word among mathematicians. Most of his memoirs are masterpieces-full of original methods, profound ideas and far-reaching imagination.
The collected works of Riemann were published by H. Weber, assisted by R. Dedekind (8vo, Leipzig, 1876; 2nd ed., 1892). At the end of this volume there is a touching account of his life by the latter. (G. Ch.)