|I am very pleased as a member of the Friedrichs family to have been invited to this occasion and especially to
be present on this day when a portrait of James Stoker was unveiled.
As you know, this room contains a portrait of my father, painted by my parents' friend Ulfert Wilke and
presented to the Courant Institute by my family, as well as the portrait of Richard Courant. Some years ago I
noticed that the portrait of my father had no label. I contacted Jerry Berkowitz about this and was pleased
that Jerry quickly arranged for a little plaque with my father's name and the name of the artist to be added.
But I remember thinking that this room should also have had a portrait of Jim Stoker. I grew up knowing that
the two people who had worked most closely with Richard Courant in building up what became the Courant
Institute were in fact James Stoker and my father. My father admired Jim Stoker enormously as a
mathematician and a colleague, but he was also pleased about the fact that while he and Richard Courant
represented the contribution of European emigres to the creation of the Institute Jim Stoker was a
native-born American. For my father always felt that it was precisely the mixture of foreign-born and native
talent that made the Institute such a great institution.
I was privileged yesterday, together with my brother Walter, to be among those who attended the annual
Courant Institute awards ceremony at which numerous awards, including the Kurt Otto Friedrichs Prize,
were presented to outstanding students. As I watched the various students receiving these awards, I was
reminded again of the way in which the Courant Institute continues to represent a wonderful mixture of native
and foreign-born talent.
Meeting the two young men -- one of Austrian and one of Russian origin, I believe -- who received the prize
named after my father, I was reminded of my father's passionate commitment to the importance of teaching.
My father could never imagine doing mathematics in isolation, because he believed that much of what is
important in mathematics comes about through teaching. Indeed, when he was offered positions at other
institutions at which he would have had no students he turned those offers down. He never would have
wanted a career that did not involve teaching others.
Of course his ideas about the importance of teaching came in part from his lifelong connection with his own
great teacher, Richard Courant, with whom he studied in Goettingen and with whom he worked for so many
years here in New York.
I was struck yesterday during and after the awards ceremony by the frequency with which people spoke of
the Courant Institute as a "family." And that has got me thinking about what people mean when they speak of
"family." After all, there are many different kinds of families.
I, for example, am a member of the Friedrichs family -- another of whose members, my brother Martin, an
NYU alumnus, is also here today. It always seemed to us that we belonged to a pretty big family. My
parents had five children and by now there are twelve grandchildren and one great-grandchild -- so at
present there are eighteen descendants of my father.
But many of the people in this room actually belong to another and much bigger family: the family of all
mathematicians. To see just how big this family is, one can look at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
website maintained by the mathematics department of North Dakota State University. It lists every known
person who ever received a PhD in mathematics, and links all of those mathematicians to their doctoral
supervisors and to all of their own doctoral students. The first time I came across this website, I was intrigued
to see that my father was listed as having not only 35 doctoral students but also, through his students and
then their students, a total of 376 mathematical descendants. If you go back one generation, you find that
Richard Courant has 1,652 descendants. And if you go back from Courant to his teacher Hilbert and then
trace the generations step by step backwards, you finally come to Carl Friedrich Gauss, the great
mathematician of the early nineteenth century, who is listed as having had 24,103 descendants -- a very big
Since I am not a mathematician, of course I do not belong to that family. But growing up in New Rochelle,
New York, I became part of another family -- the Courant extended family. One of the main requirements
for belonging to that family was that you were supposed to live in, or at least grow up in, New Rochelle,
where the Courants had settled after coming from Germany. The Stokers, for example, did not qualify, since
they lived in White Plains -- which was really not far away, yet seemed like the other side of the Rockies
from this point of view. But my family lived right in New Rochelle, and I spent hours in the wonderful big
house on Calton Road that many people in this room will surely recall. So I certainly felt very much like a
member of that extended family. I even share with Richard Emery the distinction of having been named after
his grandfather, since my middle name is Richard in honor of Richard Courant. And speaking of names,
everybody else called the patriarch and matriarch of the family Papa and Mama -- but for some reason in my
household they were always referred to as Nina and "Uncle Courant."
But there is one other family I should mention, which was referred to so often yesterday: the Courant Institute
family. To be a true member of this family, of course, you have to be a mathematician. So I do not really
qualify. But I can claim to be an honorary member. In fact one summer when I was a student I actually
worked in this building as an assistant to Charlotte John, who was then working as the assistant to Eugene
Isaacson when he was the editor of Mathematics of Computation. I remember often coming to this lounge for
tea with Nancy Stoker and other familiar members of the Institute family. So I still feel quite at home every
time I walk into this building.
But even so, to be a real member of the Courant Institute family you have to do mathematics. Yesterday as I
listened to the descriptions of the various topics the award winners were working on, I found myself musing
about which projects my father would himself have found most resonant. Some of the topics, such as those
dealing with the application of mathematics to particular natural phenomena, involved problems he would
certainly have related to. Others, such as the projects connected with the design of websites, had to do with
things that were not part of his world of experience. But he certainly would have been excited to learn about
the new questions and problems to which applied mathematics is being applied today, and I know he would
have been proud of all the Courant Institute students who are doing such interesting and pioneering work.
So, as a member of the Friedrichs family, as a member of the Courant extended family, and perhaps also as
an honorary member of the Courant Institute family, I am pleased indeed to have been invited to be part of
this Courant Institute reunion today.
|REMARKS AT THE COURANT INSTITUTE ALUMNI REUNION LUNCHEON
April 17, 2004
Christopher R. Friedrichs
Professor of History, University of British Columbia