George David Birkhoff

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George David Birkhoff (21 March 1884 - 12 November 1944) was an American mathematician, and one of the most important leaders in mathematics in the USA in his generation. He was born in Overisel, Michigan.

Birkhoff is now remembered most for a single, foundational result: his ergodic theorem. This combined insights from Physics on the ergodic hypothesis with an abstract formulation in terms of measure theory; it opened up a whole area related to probability theory and dynamical systems.

He also worked on many other areas, initially in number theory and also on the Riemann-Hilbert problem and the three-body problem. He contributed to the theory of the four colour problem.

In 1923 he was awarded the inaugural B˘cher Memorial Prize by the American Mathematical Society.

Particularly during the 1930s, when immigration from Europe to American universities was a major factor, Birkhoff’s influence came under scrutiny as being exerted in an anti-Semitic way. He was of the group arguing that positions for home-grown American mathematicians were needed — an attitude that must be viewed in the context of a transition at that time from doctoral studies often being carried out in Europe. The charge of anti-Semitism against Birkhoff is however generally regarded as substantiated in some specific ways.

The mathematician Garrett Birkhoff (1911-1996) was his son.

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