Karl Weierstraß

Intro German mathematician
A.K.A. Karl Weierstrass, Karl Theodor Wilhelm Weierstraß
Was Mathematician Teacher Professor Educator Scientist Physicist
From Germany
Type Academia Mathematics Science
Gender male
Birth 31 October 1815, Ostenfelde, Germany
Death 19 February 1897, Berlin, Margraviate of Brandenburg (aged 81 years)
Star sign Scorpio

Karl Theodor Wilhelm Weierstrass (German: Weierstraß [ˈvaɪɐʃtʁaːs]; 31 October 1815 – 19 February 1897) was a German mathematician often cited as the "father of modern analysis". Despite leaving university without a degree, he studied mathematics and trained as a teacher, eventually teaching mathematics, physics, botany and gymnastics. Weierstrass formalized the definition of the continuity of a function, proved the intermediate value theorem and the Bolzano–Weierstrass theorem, and used the latter to study the properties of continuous functions on closed bounded intervals.


Weierstrass was born in Ostenfelde, part of Ennigerloh, Province of Westphalia. Weierstrass was the son of Wilhelm Weierstrass, a government official, and Theodora Vonderforst. His interest in mathematics began while he was a gymnasium student at the Theodorianum [de] in Paderborn. He was sent to the University of Bonn upon graduation to prepare for a government position. Because his studies were to be in the fields of law, economics, and finance, he was immediately in conflict with his hopes to study mathematics. He resolved the conflict by paying little heed to his planned course of study, but continued private study in mathematics. The outcome was to leave the university without a degree. After that he studied mathematics at the Münster Academy (which was even at this time very famous for mathematics) and his father was able to obtain a place for him in a teacher training school in Münster. Later he was certified as a teacher in that city. During this period of study, Weierstrass attended the lectures of Christoph Gudermann and became interested in elliptic functions. In 1843 he taught in Deutsch Krone in West Prussia and since 1848 he taught at the Lyceum Hosianum in Braunsberg. Besides mathematics he also taught physics, botany, and gymnastics. Weierstrass may have had an illegitimate child named Franz with the widow of his friend Carl Wilhelm Borchardt. After 1850 Weierstrass suffered from a long period of illness, but was able to publish papers that brought him fame and distinction. The University of Königsberg conferred an honorary doctor's degree on him on 31 March 1854. In 1856 he took a chair at the Gewerbeinstitut, which later became the Technical University of Berlin. In 1864 he became professor at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Berlin, which later became the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. At the age of fifty-five, Weierstrass met Sofia Kovalevsky whom he tutored privately after failing to secure her admission to the University. They had a fruitful intellectual, but troubled personal relationship that "far transcended the usual teacher-student relationship". The misinterpretation of this relationship and Kovalevsky's early death in 1891 was said to have contributed to Weierstrass' later ill-health. He was immobile for the last three years of his life, and died in Berlin from pneumonia.

Mathematical contributions

Soundness of calculus

Weierstrass was interested in the soundness of calculus, and at the time, there were somewhat ambiguous definitions regarding the foundations of calculus, and hence important theorems could not be proven with sufficient rigour. While Bolzano had developed a reasonably rigorous definition of a limit as early as 1817 (and possibly even earlier) his work remained unknown to most of the mathematical community until years later, and many mathematicians had only vague definitions of limits and continuity of functions. Delta-epsilon proofs are first found in the works of Cauchy in the 1820s. Cauchy did not clearly distinguish between continuity and uniform continuity on an interval. Notably, in his 1821 Cours d'analyse, Cauchy argued that the (pointwise) limit of (pointwise) continuous functions was itself (pointwise) continuous, a statement interpreted as being incorrect by many scholars. The correct statement is rather that the uniform limit of continuous functions is continuous (also, the uniform limit of uniformly continuous functions is uniformly continuous). This required the concept of uniform convergence, which was first observed by Weierstrass's advisor, Christoph Gudermann, in an 1838 paper, where Gudermann noted the phenomenon but did not define it or elaborate on it. Weierstrass saw the importance of the concept, and both formalized it and applied it widely throughout the foundations of calculus. The formal definition of continuity of a function, as formulated by Weierstrass, is as follows: f ( x ) {displaystyle displaystyle f(x)} is continuous at x = x 0 {displaystyle displaystyle x=x_{0}} if ∀   ε > 0   ∃   δ > 0 {displaystyle displaystyle forall varepsilon >0 exists delta >0} such that for every x {displaystyle x} in the domain of f {displaystyle f} ,     | x − x 0 | < δ ⇒ | f ( x ) − f ( x 0 ) | < ε . {displaystyle displaystyle |x-x_{0}|<delta Rightarrow |f(x)-f(x_{0})|<varepsilon .} In simple English, f ( x ) {displaystyle displaystyle f(x)} is continuous at a point x = x 0 {displaystyle displaystyle x=x_{0}} if for each x {displaystyle x} close enough to x 0 {displaystyle x_{0}} , the function value f ( x ) {displaystyle f(x)} is very close to f ( x 0 ) {displaystyle f(x_{0})} , where the "close enough" restriction typically depends on the desired closeness of f ( x 0 ) {displaystyle f(x_{0})} to f ( x ) . {displaystyle f(x).} Using this definition, he proved the Intermediate Value Theorem. He also proved the Bolzano–Weierstrass theorem and used it to study the properties of continuous functions on closed and bounded intervals.

Calculus of variations

Weierstrass also made significant advancements in the field of calculus of variations. Using the apparatus of analysis that he helped to develop, Weierstrass was able to give a complete reformulation of the theory which paved the way for the modern study of the calculus of variations. Among the several significant axioms, Weierstrass established a necessary condition for the existence of strong extrema of variational problems. He also helped devise the Weierstrass–Erdmann condition, which gives sufficient conditions for an extremal to have a corner along a given extrema, and allows one to find a minimizing curve for a given integral.

Other analytical theorems

Stone–Weierstrass theorem Casorati–Weierstrass–Sokhotski theorem Weierstrass's elliptic functions Weierstrass function Weierstrass M-test Weierstrass preparation theorem Lindemann–Weierstrass theorem Weierstrass factorization theorem Enneper–Weierstrass parameterization


Edmund Husserl Sofia Kovalevskaya Gösta Mittag-Leffler Hermann Schwarz Carl Johannes Thomae Georg Cantor

Honours and awards

The lunar crater Weierstrass and the asteroid 14100 Weierstrass are named after him. Also, there is the Weierstrass Institute for Applied Analysis and Stochastics in Berlin.

Selected works

Zur Theorie der Abelschen Funktionen (1854) Theorie der Abelschen Funktionen (1856) Abhandlungen-1, Math. Werke. Bd. 1. Berlin, 1894 Abhandlungen-2, Math. Werke. Bd. 2. Berlin, 1895 Abhandlungen-3, Math. Werke. Bd. 3. Berlin, 1903 Vorl. ueber die Theorie der Abelschen Transcendenten, Math. Werke. Bd. 4. Berlin, 1902 Vorl. ueber Variationsrechnung, Math. Werke. Bd. 7. Leipzig, 1927

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