Oskar Bolza

Born: 12 May 1857 in Bergzabern, Rhenish Palatinate (now Germany)
Died: 5 July 1942 in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

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Oskar Bolza's family moved around in southern Germany until 1873 when they settled in Freiburg im Breisgau. Oskar's father manufactured printing presses and it was the family's intention that Oskar should follow in his father's trade. Oskar studied at the University of Berlin, initially being interested in languages. His interests moved to physics but, finding the experimental work not to his liking, he moved into mathematics around 1878.

From 1878 until 1881 Bolza studied mathematics under Christoffel and Reye at Strasbourg, under Schwarz at Göttingen and under Weierstrass at Berlin. He attended Weierstrass's 1879 lecture course on the calculus of variations which was to have a lasting effect on the direction that Bolza's mathematical interests would take.

After teaching at a gymnasium in Freiburg, he took up doctoral studies on hyperelliptic functions. He was well on his way to a doctorate when he discovered that Goursat had discovered the results he had obtained before him, and even worse Goursat's methods were more elegant than Bolza's. Bolza was able to change direction and, working under Klein, he completed his doctoral studies and received his doctorate in 1886 from the University of Göttingen.

Bolza became a close friend of Maschke's while the two studied together at Berlin. When Maschke moved to the United States in 1888, Bolza was tempted to follow his example. He emigrated to the USA in the following year.

During 1889 Bolza worked at Johns Hopkins University, then he obtained a position at Clark University where he remained until 1892. In 1892 he was appointed to the University of Chicago and he persuaded the head of the mathematics department, Eliakim Moore, to bring his friend Maschke to Chicago. The three were highly influential in building up a strong mathematics research school in Chicago.

Bolza worked on the calculus of variations from 1901. His text Lectures on the Calculus of Variations (1908) became a classic in its field. After the death of his friend Maschke in 1908, Bolza became unhappy in the United States and, in 1910, returned to Freiburg in Germany.

Immediately after his return Bolza continued teaching and research, in particular on function theory, integral equations and the calculus of variations. Two papers of 1913 and 1914 are particularly important. The first formulated a new type of variational problem now called 'the problem of Bolza' and the second studied variations for an integral problem involving inequalities. This latter work was to become important in control theory.

After 1914, however, Bolza undertook no further research in mathematics. He became interested in religious psychology, writing on the topic, but returned to mathematics, lecturing at Freiburg from 1929 to 1933 when he retired.

References (6 books/articles)

References elsewhere in this archive:

Oskar Bolza was the American Mathematical Society Colloquium Lecturer in 1901. You can see a history of the AMS Colloquium and a list of the lecturers.

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JOC/EFR December 1996