Otto Neugebauer - a biographical sketch

G Waldo Dunnington edited a section of the National Mathematics Magazine entitled Humanism and History of Mathematics. In 1936 he gave a biographical sketch of Otto Neugebauer in this section. We should note that Neugebauer was only 36 years old when this biography was written - he lived to the age of 90. The reference is G Waldo Dunnington, Biographical Sketch: Otto Neugebauer, National Mathematics Magazine 11 (1) (1936), 14-16. We give a version of the biographical sketch below

Biographical Sketch : OTTO NEUGEBAUER

G Waldo Dunnington

Professor Otto Neugebauer was born May 26, 1899, at Insbruck in Tyrol, the son of a railway construction engineer, Rudolph Neugebauer. His parents died when he was quite young; his boyhood was spent at Graz in Styria, where he grew up and attended the secondary school, graduating in March, 1917. From October 1917 until November, 1918, he was in military service on the field, with an Austrian mountain battery principally on the Italian front. At the signing of the armistice he was taken prisoner by the Italians. Returning in the fall of 1919, he studied mathematical physics at the University of Graz under Michael Radakovit and Roland Weitzenböck. While studying at the University of Munich in 1921-1922 under Arthur Rosenthal and Arnold Johannes Wilhelm Sommerfeld, Neugebauer was so stimulated by their lectures that he decided to devote his life to mathematics. Moving on to Göttingen the following year, he studied mathematics under Professors Richard Courant, Edmund Georg Hermann Landau, and the late Emmy Noether, Egyptian under Professors Hermann Kees and the late Kurt Sethe.

At the University of Göttingen, Neugebauer became an assistant in the department of mathematics in the fall of 1923, the following October (1924) special assistant to Courant, at that time head of the department. Göttingen conferred the Ph.D. on him in 1926; the doctoral thesis is a study of Egyptian fractions. He received the "venia legendi" for the history of mathematics (December 17, 1927) and began lecturing several months later. Further promotion came in 1930 to "Oberassistent" and on January 26,1932, from Privatdozent to associate professor. Neugebauer was granted at his own request a leave of absence from Göttingen on June 4, 1934, and went to the University of Copenhagen where he has since remained. He is married and has two children. For purposes of scientific research he had previously (spring, 1924) spent some time with Harald Bohr in Copenhagen, with Father Deimel in Rome on Sumerian, and in the fall of 1928 with W W Struve and B A Turajeff in Leningrad.

As part of his manifold activities Prof Neugebauer edits two important periodicals "Zentralblatt für Mathematik und ihre Grenzgebiete" and the "Zentralblatt für Mechanik"; in addition, he edits the two valuable series of monographs, the "Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik, Astronomie und Physik" and the "Ergebnisse der Mathematik und ihrer Grenzgebiete". In 1932 appeared no less than six distinct contributions from his pen dealing with the history of ancient algebra, the sexagesimal system and Babylonian fractions, Apollonius, Babylonian series, square root approximations, and siege calculations. A later paper covers formulas for the volume of a truncated pyramid in pre-Grecian mathematics (1933), followed by monographs on the origin of the sexagesimal system, the geometry of the circle, and the application of astronomy to chronology in Babylon.

Professor Neugebauer has announced a series of three volumes on the history of ancient astronomy and mathematics. The first volume is "Pre-Grecian Mathematics" (1934). Volume two will treat "Grecian Mathematics" and volume three "Babylonian and Grecian Astronomy". The author has given us in volume one our first complete presentation of Babylonian and Grecian mathematics. It is gratifying to find a scholar who lives up to the high standards he sets in our accompanying article. He does not lose his way in a maze of details, but portrays for us the evolution of ancient mathematical thought and exhibits the foundations on which our present knowledge of ancient mathematics is based. The volume closes with a discussion of Babylonian geometry and algebra; not until recent years has much been known about this subject, and Neugebauer has done more than anyone else to clear it up. Within a few years he has become one of the leading historians of mathematics and probably the most eminent living authority on ancient mathematics.

There remains the pleasant duty of mentioning Neugebauer's monumental edition "Mathematical Cuneiform Texts" which appeared in 1935, in two volumes. Space does not permit a full discussion of them here, suffice it to say they have been heaped with praise in all journals. Much of the material offered is interesting to the Assyriologist, the general historian, and the philologist. Architectural, engineering, economic and legal problems are touched on. The texts cover nearly two centuries and deal with the most diverse mathematical problems. One finds here a very complete bibliography of Babylonian mathematics.

G. W. D.

Last Updated August 2007