Mathematician and winner of the Leibniz Michael Rapoport Prize

“When I no longer understand anything, then I stop”, says Michael Rapoport of the science which accompanied him throughout his life, but which fascinates him above all.

“Mathematics is developing rapidly,” he says. Today, everything is going much faster here than before, explains the winner of the Leibniz Prize. “Excellent young mathematicians are making their way into science. It becomes more and more difficult to follow their thought process. “

“In mathematics, the results are independent”

Rapoport knew very early on that he wanted to become a mathematician. “From the age of 16, I had an idea of ​​how a mathematical theory should be constructed. In the meantime, he had briefly thought about experimental physics, but the subject seemed too “uncertain” to him. Too uncertain?

For the professor emeritus of the University of Bonn, this was the main motivation of mathematics: there “the results are independent of where they are obtained, when they are obtained, under what political circumstances, etc. . If it’s correct in math, then that is also correct. ”

Rapoport is convinced that any mathematical problem can be solved. In addition, the scientist is excited about an aspect of his field that might not be immediately apparent to outsiders.

The solution of difficult tasks – the theoretical structure of mathematics – offers him “an aesthetic satisfaction that hardly any other scientific subject”. “Mathematics often falls somewhere between art and science,” said the 73-year-old.

From the USA to the GDR

The multi-award-winning mathematician was born in the United States in 1948, later obtained Austrian citizenship and lived in the GDR until 1980. Global political events have left their mark on Rapoport’s biography. The parents, both from Jewish families, fled the Nazis to the United States. Shunned as communists, the family moved from there to Austria.

Father Mitja Rapoport, a biochemist, was offered a chair at the Charity of East Berlin. So they moved to the GDR in 1952. The mother, pediatrician Ingeborg Rapoport, later became the holder of the first European chair in neonatology.

The mathematician says his parents weren’t too keen on his choice of profession. In their eyes, “mathematics was a difficult childbirth to control”.

“With us, the shreds have always flown”

But Michael Rapoport remembers there were constant arguments with his parents. “The shreds were still flying at our breakfast table. It doesn’t matter if it’s politics or Schubert’s latest sonatas. ”

He never understood his parents’ uncritical attitude towards the GDR, he says: “My doubts arose when I was maybe twelve years old, when my parents would have liked to see me engage with the Young people. Pioneers. And then there were all these slogans that had to be repeated. And in principle, I think I’m kind of a spiritual rebel. I resisted that. “

He still does not understand “how two intelligent people who were able to cling to these ideas, even forbidding themselves to think”, explains the mathematician.

Incomprehensible to the laity

In 1980, Rapoport left the GDR and taught in Heidelberg, Cologne and Bonn, among others. In 1992 he received the Leibniz Prize. However, to this day he cannot really explain to the laity what exactly he is doing in his field. But the number of people the mathematician could talk to had increased dramatically. Where there used to be “a few hundred mathematicians”, there are now “thousands”.

Discussing his theories with others is always important to him. But Rapoport also likes “to read two lines in the same book, then think about these two lines for the rest of the day”. Besides, that explains why he is a very slow reader today.

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