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Birkhoff, George (David)

theory form’ celestial time

(1884–1944) US mathematician: proved the ergodic theorem of probability theory.

After taking his first degree at Harvard and a doctorate on boundary problems at Chicago, Birkhoff taught at Michigan and Princeton. He became an assistant professor at Harvard in 1912 and a full professor there at 35 in 1919, retiring in 1939.

An early interest in differential and difference equations allowed Birkhoff to apply matrix methods generally for the first time. He studied dynamics and celestial mechanics, and in 1913 obtained a now famous proof of Poincaré‘s ‘last geometrical theorem’ on the three-body problem.

Collaboration with gave rise to the ‘weak form’ of the ergodic theorem, which was shortly followed by Von Neumann’s discovery of the ‘strong form’. Ergodicity refers to whether a dynamical system will develop over time so as to return exactly to a previous configuration. In 1938 Birkhoff published several papers on electromagnetism and also argued that better alternatives to general theory of relativity were possible.

Overall Birkhoff is acknowledged as the greatest American mathematician of the early 20th-c; he excelled as a teacher and in developing celestial mechanics and the analysis of dynamical systems.

Birney, James Gillespie [next] [back] Birkeland, Kristian Olaf Bernhard

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