Hermann Alexander Brück


Born: 15 August 1905 in Berlin, Germany
Died: 4 March 2000 in Edinburgh, Scotland

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Hermann Brück was the son of Hermann Heinrich Brück and Margaret Anne Weylandt. His father served in the German Army being a Lieutenant in 1902 and reaching the rank of Captain of the XX Corps of the 9th Army on 8 November 1914. He was killed at the Battle of Lódz between the 9th German Army and the Russian Army in the second half of November 1914. An only child, Hermann was brought up by his mother. When he was fourteen years old he began his secondary education at the Kaiserin Augusta Gymnasium in Berlin-Charlottenburg. The school specialised in Latin, Greek and mathematics. One [5]:-
... teacher whom I was fortunate enough to have at school gave us a four-year course in mathematics and physics. In mathematics he took us up to number theory, analytical and spherical geometry and the calculus, including differential equations. His physics classes gave us a taste of the newly-emerging field of atomic theory.
He graduated from the Gymnasium in March 1924 with top marks in mathematics and physics. He also scored top marks in athletics. For quite a while his mother had wanted Hermann to study law but for him science was the topic where his interests lie. His mother felt that there were no prospects for him if he studied science but she was persuaded by his uncle, Karl Kisskalt, a distinguished bacteriologist, that science could lead to a good career. Kisskalt held the a chair of Bacteriology and Public Health at the University of Kiel and, to see if Brück was good enough, he arranged for his colleague Otto Toeplitz to test his ability. His success in this oral test led to him matriculating at the University of Kiel in May 1924. He had, however, had his first meeting with "a real astronomer" for when he went to Kiel to be tested by Toeplitz he met Carl Wirtz at the University Observatory.

At this time German university students would typically spend time at different universities. Brück moved more than most, spending the summer semester of 1924 at Kiel, the winter semester of 1924 at Munich and the summer semester of 1925 at Bonn. He then returned to Munich [5]:-

The time from my matriculation at Munich in the winter semester 1925-26 to my graduation in the summer of 1928 was the most enjoyable and the most fruitful period of my student years.
He was taught astronomy by Alexander Wilkens who used as texts Felix Tisserand's Méchanique Céleste and Henri Poincaré's Methodes Nouvelles. At Munich he was taught mathematics by Constantin Carathéodory, who gave an analytic mechanics course, and Oskar Perron, who gave an algebra course [5]:-
My attitude to astronomy changed dramatically, however, in my second semester (summer 1926) when I experienced the lectures of Professor Arnold Sommerfeld. Sommerfeld was the most brilliant university teacher I ever met. His lectures were models of clarity, and beautifully delivered, He would fill the two large blackboards in his lovely handwriting with never a mistake. Though I found myself at the wrong end of his 6-semester course on theoretical physics, I was able to keep up quite well with his lectures even in my first semester - partial differential equations of physics - introduced with a discussion of Fourier's work. Sommerfeld himself - and the subject matter of his lectures - aroused my immense enthusiasm and the wish to make theoretical physics rather than astronomy my main field of study. Mathematics and astronomy would then be my secondary subjects.
Brück continued to study Sommerfeld's courses on quantum and wave mechanics but continued to take mathematics courses, particularly, in Brück's words, "the brilliant lectures of Carathéodory." He also took both a lecture course and a laboratory course by Wilhelm Wien on experimental physics.

To study for a doctorate under Sommerfeld, Brück had to join Sommerfeld's seminar and to do this he had to prove he was good enough by presenting details of a recent paper. He was asked to present Erwin Schrödinger's paper Quantizierzung als Eigenwertproblem, Störungstheorie und Anwendung auf den Starkeffekt der Balmerlinien [5]:-

It is no exaggeration to say that never in all my life did I work as hard day and night as I did on that occasion! However, my talk went well, and I was formally accepted as a member of Sommerfeld's Seminar. Twenty years later, when Professor Schrödinger and I were colleagues at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, we laughed heartily as I recalled my ordeal of 1926.
One speaker at the seminar is worth noting, namely Werner Heisenberg who gave his first lecture on his 'uncertainty principle' in 1927.

There was the social side of being Sommerfeld's student as well as the academic side [5]:-

A delightful aspect of becoming a student of Sommerfeld's was the opportunity of getting to know him on the ski slopes. He was an expert skier, and had a Hulte or cabin in the mountains at Bayerische Zell where his assistants and senior students, as well as occasional foreign visitors - ten or so people altogether - would be invited to spend weekends. ... In those days we carried our skis on our shoulders, and trudged all the way up the icy track - a far cry from today's ski-lifts. These weekends in the mountains were among the highlights of my student days.
His thesis was on wave-mechanical calculations of the forces which keep ions apart in salt crystals. After his thesis was published and accepted, he was examined orally in theoretical physics, experimental physics, mathematics and astronomy. His examiners for these four topics were, respectively, Arnold Sommerfeld, Wilhelm Wien, Heinrich Tietze and Alexander Wilkens. Brück graduated with his doctorate, magna cum laude, from the University of Munich on 24 July 1928.

It was Sommerfeld who suggested the next step in Brück's career. Sommerfeld was fascinated by Arthur Eddington's book The Internal Constitution of Stars (1926) and, knowing that Brück loved astronomy, suggested that he should work on astrophysics. Germany had set up the Einstein Institute as part of the Potsdam Astrophysical Observatory in 1920 and, Finlay Freundlich, who had been appointed there as an observer in 1921, was by this time the head of the Einstein Institute. This, suggested Sommerfeld, would be the right career move so he recommended Brück to Freundlich who awarded him a Research Fellowship [5]:-

On my arrival in Potsdam I was very kindly received by Professor Freundlich and his scientific staff ... I found Freundlich and Klüber [Harald von Klüber, Freundlich's assistant] busy preparing for an expedition to Sumatra where they planned to observe the total eclipse of the Sun of 9 May 1929.
Freundlich had been working with Einstein attempting to verify the general theory of relativity from astronomical observations. At this time Brück lived at the Observatory during the week and returned to his family home in Berlin at the weekends. As well as working at the Observatory, he attended physics colloquia at the University of Berlin where he delivered a lecture on the Stark effect in stellar spectra. He met many scientists such as Einstein at the Colloquia and A E Milne at the Observatory. Recreation was taking walks in the woods round the Observatory and playing tennis in the Observatory grounds.

After two years on the Research Fellowship, Brück was offered a permanent post at the Observatory. His research work involved the spectral classification of southern hemisphere stars from spectra on photographic plates taken at the Potsdam Observatory's site at La Paz, Bolivia. He attended meetings of the German Astronomical Society in Bern and Göttingen and, at the Göttingen meeting, for the first time some participants were in Nazi uniform.

Brück had been brought up a Lutheran but, under the influence of two Roman Catholics, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1935. The two who influenced him were Romano Guardini (1885-1968), an Italian-born Catholic priest whose whole career was in Germany, and Johannes Pinsk (1891-1957) who, from 1929, was managing director of the Association of Catholic Academics in Berlin. In 1936 Brück abruptly left Germany with his girl friend Irma Waitzfelder (1905-1950) and he went to Italy to work as a research assistant at the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo. He married Irma on 8 September 1936 in Rome. After a year in Italy, Brück travelled to England where he took up a post as Assistant Observer at the Solar Physics Observatory in Cambridge, working under Arthur Eddington. Hermann and Irma Brück had two children, Maria C Brück (birth registered in Cambridge 4th quarter of 1937), and Peter Michael Brück born 22 March 1940 in Cambridge. Peter Brück became a geologist at University College Dublin (1964-68), the Geographical Survey Ireland (1968-79) and Professor of Geology at University College, Cork since 1979.

After World War II broke out in September 1939, Brück was a German living in England with the two countries at war. He was interned as an enemy alien, but within six months he was released and allowed to return to Cambridge after Eddington had worked to secure this. In 1943, in addition to his post at the Cambridge Observatory, he was appointed John Couch Adams Astronomer at Cambridge University. Eddington died in 1944, and in 1946 Brück became the Assistant Director of the Cambridge Observatory. In the following year Éamon de Valera invited him to become director of the Dunsink Observatory and Professor of Astronomy at the new Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies [1]:-

He was delighted to join his old friend, Erwin Schrödinger, then Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Institute, and Professor Brück spent 10 happy years here. The observatory had fallen into disuse during the troubled years after the foundation of the State and de Valera had included its restoration amongst his projects at the close of the Second World War. Professor Brück had a major impact on astronomy [in Ireland], as indicated by Sir Francis Graham-Smith, Astronomer Royal in Britain from 1982-1990, who recounts: "The unification of astronomy in Ireland which has survived the Troubles was a triumph for Brück. The particular collaboration was between Armagh and Dunsink and the Boyden Observatory in South Africa, which was set up by Brück and handed over to the joint management of the Irish observatories. There is a recent echo of this development in the Canary Islands, where the two different parts of the island of Ireland work in complete collaboration with one another."
While he was in Ireland, in 1950, his wife Irma died. On 21 November 1951 he married Máire Teresa Conway (1925-2008) who, away from Ireland, seems to have almost exclusively used 'Mary' the Anglicised version of her name. After a first degree in physics from University College Dublin, she had studied at the University of Edinburgh where she was awarded a Ph.D. in 1950 for her thesis on solar physics. She returned to Dublin taking up a position at Dunsink Observatory where she met Brück; they had three children, Anne, Catherine and Andrew. After ten years in Dublin, Brück was offered the position of Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Director of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, and Regius Professor of Astronomy at Edinburgh University [7]:-
His family relocated to Scotland with him, moving into the purpose-built residence for the Astronomer Royal in the grounds of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh on Backford Hill in Edinburgh.
Martin Rees writes [9]:-
Brück's tenure at Edinburgh lasted from 1957 until his retirement in 1975, and during that time the observatory staff numbers expanded from eight to more than one hundred. He fostered the work ... on new telescopes. He thereby prepared the way for instruments which greatly boosted the UK's international standing in astronomy - especially the 40-inch UK Schmidt telescope in Australia, which produced a photographic survey of the southern sky, and the pioneering Cosmos machine which could automatically scan the resulting photographic plates at high speed. He also laid the groundwork for the UK infra-red telescope and the James Clerk Maxwell radio telescope in Hawaii. He championed the establishment of observing stations in climates better than that of Great Britain and was a prime advocate of a United Kingdom northern hemisphere observatory in the Canary Islands.
Colin Campbell, a mathematics colleague of the authors of this article at St Andrews for 50 years, writes:-
As a mathematics student at the University of Edinburgh from 1960-64 I took an Astronomy course in 1961 with Professor Brück being one of the two lecturers. I still remember well the interesting lecture where he described how the satellite ECHO 1 had provided new information about the shape of Earth. Such was his enthusiasm for astronomy that I was pleased to be a member of Astrosoc, the student astronomical society, throughout my time at Edinburgh. I also had two summer vacation jobs at the Royal Observatory. One year I worked on calibrating photographic plates and the second year I worked in the Observatory library.
Brück served as Dean of the Faculty of Science of the University of Edinburgh in 1968-1970. After retiring, Brück's interests turned to the history of astronomy and he wrote two important books, The Story of Astronomy in Edinburgh (1983), and, jointly with his wife Mary Brück, The Peripatetic Astronomer: a biography of Charles Piazzi Smyth (1988).

Brück received many honours of which we mention the most important: elected to the Royal Irish Academy (1948), elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1958), elected to the Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur Mainz (1955), elected to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1955), served on the Council of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1964-86), made a Commander of the British Empire (1966), awarded an honorary D.Sc. from the National University of Ireland (1972), awarded an honorary D.Sc. from the University of St Andrews (1973), appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul II in 1995.

He died in the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, from pulmonary embolism, on 4 March 2000, and was buried on 11 March at Mortonhall Cemetery, Edinburgh. Mary Brück died on 11 December 2008 and following a Funeral Mass on 22 December in the Sacred Heart Church, Penicuik, Midlothian, Scotland, she was buried beside her husband in Mortonhall Cemetery.

Let us end with this tribute by Peter Brand [3]:-

Despite his personal drive and the lasting success it brought, and despite his awe-inspiring and elegant presence, he was a modest and gentle man, seen to best effect in the heart of his family.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

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Mathematicians born in the same country

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  1. Pontifical Academy

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  1. zbMATH entry
  2. ERAM Jahrbuch entry

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JOC/EFR September 2018
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School of Mathematics and Statistics
University of St Andrews, Scotland

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