Mar 18, 2013
Ehrhard Behrends simply can’t stop – or at least, he doesn’t want to. Popularizing mathematics has become so dear to the heart of Behrends (66), a professor at Freie Universität, that he has postponed retiring. Although it should be said that “retirement” is one word whose probability of combination with Behrends’s name is so low as to approach zero.
His specialties are functional analysis and probability theory. For years now, Behrends has been fighting for his discipline’s reputation, trying to move math out of the shadowy realm of dusty, distasteful school subjects and showing how exciting and omnipresent the world of numbers and equations can be.
As part of these efforts, Behrends writes newspaper columns, such as “Five-minute Mathematics,” which has now been published in book form in seven languages. He also advised the German Museum of Technology on the creation of a well-attended exhibit named “Mathema” in 2008, the Year of Mathematics. Years ago, he launched the website mathematik.de.
And since 2008, when the European Mathematical Society appointed him chair of its Committee for Raising Public Awareness of Mathematics, he has taken it up a notch with the site’s European counterpart, mathematics-in-europe.eu.
Mathematik.de is already a success in Germany, so scholar Behrends had a lot of experience to build on in developing the European site. Colleagues from other countries help him with the portal. The introduction is now available in 15 languages, including the usual ones, but also Finnish, Serbian, Croatian, and Turkish. Since mathematics is international, the site offers an extensive dictionary that can be used to translate about 700 math terms from one language to another. Like on mathematik.de, the European site profiles 19 math-related careers, offering impressive proof that mathematicians have more career options than just calculating risk for an insurance company. But if you’re thinking two websites, books, and his regular obligations as a professor are enough to keep Behrends busy, think again: 2013 has been named the year of Mathematics of Planet Earth by three international associations of mathematicians and UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The goal of the program’s many activities is to publicly shed light on the importance of this discipline to the well-being of humanity, in everything from route planning and disaster prediction to medicine and the fight against poverty. Behrends is responsible for coordinating all European activities this year.
For example, the program has called for entries in a competition for virtual exhibits on the blessings of mathematics that will be featured on the Internet. Behrends is the chair of the prize committee. That means he should be able to collect a lot of material for his websites this year – a year when he can look forward to little time to stop and rest, much less to retire.