Andrey Nikolaevich Kolmogorov

Quick Info

25 April 1903
Tambov, Tambov province, Russia
20 October 1987
Moscow, Russia

Andrey Kolmogorov was one of the developers of probability theory. He later used this work to study the motion of the planets and the turbulent flow of air from a jet engine.


Andrei Nikolaevich Kolmogorov's parents were not married and his father took no part in his upbringing. His father Nikolai Kataev, the son of a priest, was an agriculturist who was exiled. He returned after the Revolution to head a Department in the Agricultural Ministry but died in fighting in 1919. Kolmogorov's mother also, tragically, took no part in his upbringing since she died in childbirth at Kolmogorov's birth. His mother's sister, Vera Yakovlena, brought Kolmogorov up and he always had the deepest affection for her.

In fact it was chance that had Kolmogorov born in Tambov since the family had no connections with that place. Kolmogorov's mother had been on a journey from the Crimea back to her home in Tunoshna near Yaroslavl and it was in the home of his maternal grandfather in Tunoshna that Kolmogorov spent his youth. Kolmogorov's name came from his grandfather, Yakov Stepanovich Kolmogorov, and not from his own father. Yakov Stepanovich was from the nobility, a difficult status to have in Russia at this time, and there is certainly stories told that an illegal printing press was operated from his house.

After Kolmogorov left school he worked for a while as a conductor on the railway. In his spare time he wrote a treatise on Newton's laws of mechanics. Then, in 1920, Kolmogorov entered Moscow State University but at this stage he was far from committed to mathematics. He studied a number of subjects, for example in addition to mathematics he studied metallurgy and Russian history. Nor should it be thought that Russian history was merely a topic to fill out his course, indeed he wrote a serious scientific thesis on the owning of property in Novgorod in the 15th and 16th centuries. There is an anecdote told by D G Kendall in [10] regarding this thesis, his teacher saying:-
You have supplied one proof of your thesis, and in the mathematics that you study this would perhaps suffice, but we historians prefer to have at least ten proofs.
Kolmogorov may have told this story as a joke but nevertheless jokes are only funny if there is some truth in them and undoubtedly this is the case here.

In mathematics Kolmogorov was influenced at an early stage by a number of outstanding mathematicians. P S Aleksandrov was beginning his research (for the second time) at Moscow around the time Kolmogorov began his undergraduate career. Luzin and Egorov were running their impressive research group at this time which the students called 'Luzitania'. It included M Ya Suslin and P S Urysohn, in addition to Aleksandrov. However the person who made the deepest impression on Kolmogorov at this time was Stepanov who lectured to him on trigonometric series.

It is remarkable that Kolmogorov, although only an undergraduate, began research and produced results of international importance at this stage. He had finished writing a paper on operations on sets by the spring of 1922 which was a major generalisation of results obtained by Suslin. By June of 1922 he had constructed a summable function which diverged almost everywhere. This was wholly unexpected by the experts and Kolmogorov's name began to be known around the world. The authors of [7] and [8] note that:-
Almost simultaneously [Kolmogorov] exhibited his interest in a number of other areas of classical analysis: in problems of differentiation and integration, in measures of sets etc. In every one of his papers, dealing with such a variety of topics, he introduced an element of originality, a breadth of approach, and a depth of thought.
Kolmogorov graduated from Moscow State University in 1925 and began research under Luzin's supervision in that year. It is remarkable that Kolmogorov published eight papers in 1925, all written while he was still an undergraduate. Another milestone occurred in 1925, namely Kolmogorov's first paper on probability appeared. This was published jointly with Khinchin and contains the 'three series' theorem as well as results on inequalities of partial sums of random variables which would become the basis for martingale inequalities and the stochastic calculus.

In 1929 Kolmogorov completed his doctorate. By this time he had 18 publications and Kendall writes in [10]:-
These included his versions of the strong law of large numbers and the law of the iterated logarithm, some generalisations of the operations of differentiation and integration, and a contribution to intuitional logic. His papers ... on this last topic are regarded with awe by specialists in the field. The Russian language edition of Kolmogorov's collected works contains a retrospective commentary on these papers which [Kolmogorov] evidently regarded as marking an important development in his philosophical outlook.
An important event for Kolmogorov was his friendship with Aleksandrov which began in the summer of 1929 when they spent three weeks together. On a trip starting from Yaroslavl, they went by boat down the Volga then across the Caucasus mountains to Lake Sevan in Armenia. There Aleksandrov worked on the topology book which he co-authored with Hopf, while Kolmogorov worked on Markov processes with continuous states and continuous time. Kolmogorov's results from his work by the Lake were published in 1931 and mark the beginning of diffusion theory. In the summer of 1931 Kolmogorov and Aleksandrov made another long trip. They visited Berlin, Göttingen, Munich, and Paris where Kolmogorov spent many hours in deep discussions with Paul Lévy. After this they spent a month at the seaside with Fréchet

Kolmogorov was appointed a professor at Moscow University in 1931. His monograph on probability theory Grundbegriffe der Wahrscheinlichkeitsrechnung published in 1933 built up probability theory in a rigorous way from fundamental axioms in a way comparable with Euclid's treatment of geometry. One success of this approach is that it provides a rigorous definition of conditional expectation. As noted in [10]:-
The year 1931 can be regarded as the beginning of the second creative stage in Kolmogorov's life. Broad general concepts advanced by him in various branched of mathematics are characteristic of this stage.
After mentioning the highly significant paper Analytic methods in probability theory which Kolmogorov published in 1938 laying the foundations of the theory of Markov random processes, they continue to describe:-
... his ideas in set-theoretic topology, approximation theory, the theory of turbulent flow, functional analysis, the foundations of geometry, and the history and methodology of mathematics. [His contributions to] each of these branches ... [is] a single whole, where a serious advance in one field leads to a substantial enrichment of the others.
Aleksandrov and Kolmogorov bought a house in Komarovka, a small village outside Moscow, in 1935. Many famous mathematicians visited Komarovka: Hadamard, Fréchet, Banach, Hopf, Kuratowski, and others. Gnedenko and other graduate students went on ([7] and [8]):-
... mathematical outings [which] ended in Komarovka, where Kolmogorov and Aleksandrov treated the whole company to dinner. Tired and full of mathematical ideas, happy from the consciousness that we had found out something which one cannot find in books, we would return in the evening to Moscow.
Around this time Malcev and Gelfand and others were graduate students of Kolmogorov along with Gnedenko who describes what it was like being supervised by Kolmogorov ([7] and [8]):-
The time of their graduate studies remains for all of Kolmogorov's students an unforgettable period in their lives, full of high scientific and cultural strivings, outbursts of scientific progress and a dedication of all one's powers to the solutions of the problems of science. It is impossible to forget the wonderful walks on Sundays to which [Kolmogorov] invited all his own students (graduates and undergraduates), as well as the students of other supervisors. These outings in the environs of Bolshevo, Klyazma, and other places about 30-35 kilometres away, were full of discussions about the current problems of mathematics (and its applications), as well as discussions about the questions of the progress of culture, especially painting, architecture and literature.
In 1938-1939 a number of leading mathematicians from the Moscow University joined the Steklov Mathematical Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences while retaining their positions at the University. Among them were Aleksandrov, Gelfand, Kolmogorov, Petrovsky, and Khinchin. The Department of Probability and Statistics was set up at the Institute and Kolmogorov was appointed as Head of Department.

Kolmogorov later extended his work to study the motion of the planets and the turbulent flow of air from a jet engine. In 1941 he published two papers on turbulence which are of fundamental importance. In 1954 he developed his work on dynamical systems in relation to planetary motion. He thus demonstrated the vital role of probability theory in physics.

We must mention just a few of the numerous other major contributions which Kolmogorov made in a whole range of different areas of mathematics. In topology Kolmogorov introduced the notion of cohomology groups at much the same time, and independently of, Alexander. In 1934 Kolmogorov investigated chains, cochains, homology and cohomology of a finite cell complex. In further papers, published in 1936, Kolmogorov defined cohomology groups for an arbitrary locally compact topological space. Another contribution of the highest significance in this area was his definition of the cohomology ring which he announced at the International Topology Conference in Moscow in 1935. At this conference both Kolmogorov and Alexander lectured on their independent work on cohomology.

In 1953 and 1954 two papers by Kolmogorov, each of four pages in length, appeared. These are on the theory of dynamical systems with applications to Hamiltonian dynamics. These papers mark the beginning of KAM-theory, which is named after Kolmogorov, Arnold and Moser. Kolmogorov addressed the International Congress of Mathematicians in Amsterdam in 1954 on this topic with his important talk General theory of dynamical systems and classical mechanics.

N H Bingham [10] notes Kolmogorov's major part in setting up the theory to answer the probability part of Hilbert's Sixth Problem "to treat ... by means of axioms those physical sciences in which mathematics plays an important part; in the first rank are the theory of probability and mechanics" in his 1933 monograph Grundbegriffe der Wahrscheinlichkeitsrechnung . Bingham also notes:-
... Paul Lévy writes poignantly of his realisation, immediately on seeing the "Grundbegriffe", of the opportunity which he himself had neglected to take. A rather different perspective is supplied by the eloquent writings of Mark Kac on the struggles that Polish mathematicians of the calibre Steinhaus and himself had in the 1930s, even armed with the "Grundbegriffe", to understand the (apparently perspicuous) notion of stochastic independence.
If Kolmogorov made a major contribution to Hilbert's sixth problem, he completely solved Hilbert's Thirteenth Problem in 1957 when he showed that Hilbert was wrong in asking for a proof that there exist continuous functions of three variables which could not be represented by continuous functions of two variables.

Kolmogorov took a special interest in a project to provide special education for gifted children [10]:-
To this school he devoted a major proportion of his time over many years, planning syllabuses, writing textbooks, spending a large number of teaching hours with the children themselves, introducing them to literature and music, joining in their recreations and taking them on hikes, excursions, and expeditions. ... [Kolmogorov] sought to ensure for these children a broad and natural development of the personality, and it did not worry him if the children in his school did not become mathematicians. Whatever profession they ultimately followed, he would be content if their outlook remained broad and their curiosity unstifled. Indeed it must have been wonderful to belong to this extended family of [Kolmogorov].
Such an outstanding scientist as Kolmogorov naturally received a whole host of honours from many different countries. In 1939 he was elected to the USSR Academy of Sciences. He received one of the first State Prizes to be awarded in 1941, the Lenin Prize in 1965, the Order of Lenin on six separate occasions, and the Lobachevsky Prize in 1987. He was also elected to the many other academies and societies including the Romanian Academy of Sciences (1956), the Royal Statistical Society of London (1956), the Leopoldina Academy of Germany (1959), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1959), the London Mathematical Society (1959), the American Philosophical Society (1961), The Indian Statistical Institute (1962), the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (1963), the Royal Society of London (1964), the National Academy of the United States (1967), the French Academy of Sciences (1968).

In addition to the prizes mentioned above, Kolmogorov was awarded the Balzan International Prize in 1962. Many universities awarded him an honorary degree including Paris, Stockholm, and Warsaw.

Kolmogorov had many interests outside mathematics, in particular he was interested in the form and structure of the poetry of the Russian author Pushkin.

References (show)

  1. Biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  2. P S Aleksandrov, Andreii Nikolaevich Kolmogorov (on his sixtieth birthday) (Russian), Vestnik Moskov. Univ. Ser. I Mat. Meh. (3)1963, 3-6.
  3. P S Aleksandrov and A Ya. Hincin, Andreii Nikolaevich Kolmogorov (for his fiftieth birthday) (Russian), Uspekhi Mat. Nauk 8 3 (55) (1953), 177-200.
  4. V I Arnold, On A N Kolmogorov, in S Zdravkovska and P A Duren (eds.), Golden Years of Moscow Mathematics (Providence R.I., 1993), 129-153.
  5. T Berger, L A Bassalygo, R L Dobrushin and M S Pinsker, Andreii Nikolaevich Kolmogorov (April 25, 1903-October 20, 1987), IEEE Trans. Inform. Theory 34 (2) (1988), 173-175.
  6. N N Bogolyubov, B V Gnedenko and S L Sobolev, Andreii Nikolaevich Kolmogorov (on the occasion of his 80th birthday) (Russian), Uspekhi Mat. Nauk 38 4(232) (1983), 11-26.
  7. B V Gnedenko, Andreii Nikolaevich Kolmogorov (on the occasion of his seventieth birthday) (Russian), Uspekhi Mat. Nauk 28 5(173) (1973), 5-15.
  8. B V Gnedenko, Andreii Nikolaevich Kolmogorov (on the occasion of his seventieth birthday), Russian Math. Surveys 28 (5) (1973), 5-17.
  9. F Golse and P Lochak, Andreii Nikolaievitch Kolmogorov 1903-1987, Gaz. Math. 35 (1988), 51-52.
  10. D Kendall, G K Batchelor, N H Bingham, W K Hayman, J M E Hyland, G G Lorentz, H K Moffatt, W Parry, A A Razborov, C A Robinson and P Whittle, Andrei Nikolaevich Kolmogorov (1903-1987), Bull. London Math. Soc. 22 (1) (1990), 31-100.
  11. K R Parthasarathy, Obituary: Andreii Nikolaevich Kolmogorov, J. Appl. Probab. 25 (2) (1988), 445-450.
  12. B Penkov, Persönliche Erinnerung an Andrei Nikolaevitsch Kolmogorov, Probab. Theory Related Fields 84 (3) (1990), 427-428.
  13. A N Shiryaev et al., Andrei Nikolaevich Kolmogorov : (April 25, 1903 - October 20, 1987) : in memoriam, Theory of probability and its applications 34 (1989), 5-118.
  14. F Terpe, Andrei Nikolajewitsch Kolmorogow, Mitt. Math. Ges. DDR 1 (1985), 43-56.
  15. F Terpe, Andrej Nikolajewitsch Kolmogorov und die Hilbertschen Probleme, Ernst- Moritz- Arndt- Univ. Math.- Natur. Reihe 38 (4) (1989), 54-58.
  16. On the fiftieth anniversary of Andreii Nikoleavich Kolmogorov (Russian), Izvestiya Akad. Nauk SSSR Ser. Mat. 17 (1953), 181-188.
  17. V M Tihomirov, Andreii Nikolaevich Kolmogorov, Ergodic Theory Dynamical Systems 8 (4) (1988), 493-499.
  18. M V Tikhomirov, A N Kolmogorov, in S Zdravkovska and P A Duren (eds.), Golden Years of Moscow Mathematics (Providence R.I., 1993), 101-127.
  19. V M Tikhomirov, The life and work of Andreii Nikolaevich Kolmogorov, Russian Math. Surveys 43 (6) (1988), 1-39.
  20. P M B Vitányi, Andrei Nikolaevich Kolmogorov, CWI Quarterly 1 (1988), 3-18.

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update January 1999