Emil Artin

In September, 1907, Artin entered the Volksschule in Strobnitz, a small town in southern Bohemia. For that year, he lived away from home, boarding on a local farm. The following year, he returned to the home of his mother and stepfather, and entered the Realschule in Reichenberg, where he pursued his secondary education until June, 1916.

Artin's academic performance in the first years at the Realschule was spotty. Up to the end of the 1911–1912 school year, for instance, his grade in mathematics was merely “genügend,” (satisfactory). Of his mathematical inclinations at this early period he later wrote, “Meine eigene Vorliebe zur Mathematik zeigte sich erst im sechzehnten Lebensjahr, während vorher von irgendeiner Anlage dazu überhaupt nicht die Rede sein konnte.” (“My own predilection for mathematics manifested itself only in my sixteenth year; before that, one could certainly not speak of any particular aptitude for it.”) His grade in French for 1912 was actually “nicht genügend” (unsatisfactory). He did rather better work in physics and chemistry. But from 1910 to 1912, his grade for “Comportment” was “nicht genügend.”

Now that it was time to move on to university studies, Artin was no doubt content but to leave Reichenberg, for relations with his stepfather were clouded. According to him, Hübner reproached him “day and night” with being a financial burden, and even when Artin became a university lecturer and then a professor, Hübner deprecated his academic career as self-indulgent and belittled its paltry emolument.

Artin survived both war and vermin on the Italian front, and returned late in 1918 to the University of Vienna, where he remained through Easter of the following year.

By June 1919, he had moved to Leipzig and matriculated at the university there as a "Class 2 Auditor" ("Hörer zweiter Ordnung"). Late the same year, Artin undertook the formality of standing for a qualifying examination by an academic board of the Oberrealschule in Leipzig, which he passed with the grade of “gut” (good), receiving for the second time the Reifezeugnis (diploma attesting the equivalence of satisfactory completion of 6 years at a Realschule). How this Leipzig Reifezeugnis differed technically from the one he had been granted at Reichenberg is unclear from the document, but it apparently qualified him for regular matriculation as a student at the university, which normally required the Abitur.

In keeping with the Wandervogel ethos, Artin and his companions carried music with them wherever they visited. The young men had packed guitars and violins, and Artin played the harmoniums common in the isolated farmsteads where they found lodging. The group regularly entertained their Icelandic hosts, not in full exchange for board and lodging, to be sure, but for goodwill certainly, and sometimes for a little extra on their plates, or a modestly discounted tariff.

From Lake Mývatn, Artin and his companions headed west towards Akureyri, passing the large waterfall Goðafoss on the way. From Akureyri, they trekked west down the Öxnadalur (Ox Valley) intending to rent pack horses and cross the high and barren interior by foot to Reykjavík. By the time they reached the lower end of Skagafjörður, however, they were persuaded by a local farmer from whom they had hoped to rent the horses that a cross-country trek was by then impracticable; with the approach of winter, highland routes were already snow-bound and impassable. Instead of turning south, then, they turned north to Siglufjörður, where they boarded another steamer that took them around the western peninsula and down the coast to Reykjavík. From Reykjavík, they returned via Norway to Hamburg. By Artin's calculation the distance they had covered on foot through Iceland totaled 450 kilometers.

Early in 1926, the University of Münster offered Artin a professorial position; however, Hamburg matched the offer financially, and (as noted above) promoted him to full professor, making him (along with his young colleague Helmut Hasse) one of the two youngest professors of mathematics in Germany.

Natascha recalled going down to the newsstand on the corner one day and being warned in hushed tones by the man from whom she and Artin bought their paper that a man had daily been watching their apartment from across the street. Once tipped off, she and Artin became very aware of the watcher (Natascha liked to refer to him as their “spy”), and even rather enjoyed the idea of his being forced to follow them on the long walks they loved taking in the afternoons to a café far out in the countryside.

By this time, to be precise, on July 15, 1937, because of Natascha's status as “Mischling ersten Grades,” Artin had lost his post at the university—technically, compelled into early retirement—on the grounds of paragraph 6 of the Act to Restore the Professional Civil Service (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums) of April 7, 1933. Ironically, he had applied only some months earlier, on February 8, 1937, for a leave of absence from the university in order to accept a position offered him at Stanford. On March 15, 1937, the response had come back denying his application for leave on the grounds that his services to the university were indispensable (“Da die Tätigkeit des Professors Dr. Artin an der Universität Hamburg nicht entbehrt werden kann. . .”).

The family must have worked feverishly to prepare for emigration to the United States, for this entailed among other things packing their entire household for shipment. Since German law forbade emigrants taking more than a token sum of money out of the country, the Artins sank all the funds at their disposal into shipping their entire household, from beds, tables, chairs and double-manual harpsichord down to the last kitchen knife, cucumber slicer, and potato masher to their new home. This is why each of their residences in the United States bore such a striking resemblance to the rooms photographed so beautifully by Natascha in their Hamburg apartment (see Natascha A. Brunswick, “Hamburg: Wie Ich Es Sah,” Dokumente der Photographie 6, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, 2001, pp. 48–53) .

It was early November, 1937 by the time they arrived in South Bend, where Artin joined the faculty at Notre Dame, and taught for the rest of that academic year. He was offered a permanent position the following year 170 miles to the south at Indiana University, in Bloomington. Shortly after the family resettled there, a second son, Thomas, was born on November 12, 1938.

After moving to Bloomington, Artin quickly acquired a piano, and soon after that a Hammond Organ, a recently invented electronic instrument that simulated the sound of a pipe organ. He wanted this instrument in order primarily to play the works of J. S. Bach, and because the pedal set that came with the production model had a range of only two octaves (not quite wide enough for all the Bach pieces), he set about extending its range. Music was a constant presence in the Artin household. Karin played the cello, and then the piano as well, and Michael played the violin. As in Hamburg, the Artin living room was regularly the venue for amateur chamber music performances.

As German citizens, Artin and Natascha were technically classified as enemy aliens for the duration of the war. On April 12, 1945, with the end of the war in Europe only weeks away, they applied for naturalization as American citizens. American citizenship was granted them on February 7, 1946.

If Göttingen had been the “Mecca” of mathematics in the 1920s and early ‘30s, Princeton, following the decimation of German mathematics under the Nazis, had become the center of the mathematical world in the 1940s. In April, 1946, Artin was appointed Professor at Princeton, at a yearly salary of $8,000. The family moved there in the fall of 1946.

Whenever he was asked whether mathematics was a science, Artin would reply unhesitatingly, “No. An art.” His explanation was that: “[Mathematicians] all believe that mathematics is an art. The author of a book, the lecturer in a classroom tries to convey the structural beauty of mathematics to his readers, to his listeners. In this attempt, he must always fail. Mathematics is logical to be sure, each conclusion is drawn from previously derived statements. Yet the whole of it, the real piece of art, is not linear; worse than that, its perception should be instantaneous. We have all experienced on some rare occasion the feeling of elation in realizing that we have enabled our listeners to see at a glance the whole architecture and all its ramifications.”

During the Princeton years, Artin built a 6-inch (15 cm) reflecting telescope to plans he found in the magazine Sky and Telescope, which he subscribed to. He spent weeks in the basement attempting to grind the mirror to specifications, without success, and his continued failure to get it right led to increasing frustration. Then, in California to give a talk, he made a side trip to the Mt. Wilson Observatory, where he discussed his project with the astronomers. Whether it was their technical advice, or Natascha's intuitive suggestion that it might be too cold in the basement, and that he should try the procedure upstairs in the warmth of his study (which he did), he completed the grinding of the mirror in a matter of days. With this telescope, he surveyed the night skies over Princeton.

Artin's marriage to Natascha had by this time seriously frayed. Though nominally still husband and wife, resident in the same house, they were for all intents and purposes living separate lives. Artin was offered a professorship at Hamburg, and at the conclusion of Princeton's spring semester, 1958, he moved permanently to Germany. His decision to leave Princeton University and the United States was complicated, based on multiple factors, prominent among them Princeton's (then operative) mandatory retirement age of 65. Artin had no wish to retire from teaching and direct involvement with students. Hamburg's offer was open-ended.