January 8, 1888|
Lublinitz, German Empire
|Died||January 27, 1972
New Rochelle, New York
|Institutions||University of Göttingen
University of Münster
University of Cambridge
New York University
|Alma mater||University of Göttingen|
|Doctoral advisor||David Hilbert|
|Doctoral students||Herbert Busemann
|Known for||Courant number
Courant minimax principle
Courant was born in Lublinitz in the German Empire's Prussian Province of Silesia. During his youth, his parents had to move quite often, to Glatz, Breslau, and in 1905 to Berlin. He stayed in Breslau and entered the university there. As he found the courses not demanding enough, he continued his studies in Zürich and Göttingen. Courant eventually became David Hilbert's assistant in Göttingen and obtained his doctorate there in 1910. He had to fight in World War I, but he was wounded and dismissed from the military service shortly after enlisting. After the war, in 1919, he married Nerina (Nina) Runge, a daughter of the Göttingen professor for Applied Mathematics, Carl Runge. Richard continued his research in Göttingen, with a two-year period as professor in Münster. There he founded the Mathematical Institute, which he headed as director from 1928 until 1933.
Courant left Germany in 1933, earlier than many of his colleagues. While he was classified as a Jew by the Nazis, his having served as a front-line soldier exempted him from losing his position for this particular reason at the time; however, his public membership in the social-democratic left was a reason for dismissal to which no such exemption applied.
After one year in Cambridge, Courant went to New York City where he became a professor at New York University in 1936. He was given the task of founding an institute for graduate studies in applied mathematics, a task which he carried out very successfully. The Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences (as it was renamed in 1964) continues to be one of the most respected research centers in applied mathematics.
Apart from his outstanding organizational talent, Courant is well remembered for his mathematical achievements. He and David Hilbert authored the influential textbook Methods of Mathematical Physics, which is still widely used more than eighty years after it was written. He was the co-author, with Herbert Robbins, of a popularization titled What is Mathematics?, which is still in print. Although Robbins wrote most of the book, he received almost none of the royalties. Courant owned the copyright, and passed almost none of the money on to Robbins.
Courant's name is also attached to the finite element method, with his numerical treatment of the plain torsion problem for multiply-connected domains, published in 1943. This method is now one of the ways to solve partial differential equations numerically. Courant is a namesake of the Courant–Friedrichs–Lewy condition and the Courant minimax principle.
Courant died in New Rochelle, New York. Richard and Nerina had four children: Ernest, a particle physicist and innovator in particle accelerators; Gertrude (*1922), a PhD biologist and wife of the mathematician Jürgen Moser (1928–1999); Hans, a physicist who participated in the Manhattan Project; and Leonore, a professional musician and wife of the mathematician Jerome Berkowitz (1928–1998).
Perspective on mathematics 
Commenting upon his analysis of experimental results from in-laboratory soap film formations, Courant believed that the existence of a physical solution does not obviate the need for mathematical proof. Here is a quote from Courant on his mathematical perspective:
Empirical evidence can never establish mathematical existence--nor can the mathematician's demand for existence be dismissed by the physicist as useless rigor. Only a mathematical existence proof can ensure that the mathematical description of a physical phenomenon is meaningful.
- Differential and Integral Calculus, 2 volumes (Vol 1: ISBN 4-87187-838-4, Vol 2: ISBN 4-87187-835-X)
- Introduction to Calculus and Analysis, 3 volumes (Vol 1: ISBN 3-540-65058-X, Vol 2: ISBN 3-540-66569-2, Vol 3: ISBN 3-540-66570-6)
- Methods of Mathematical Physics
- What is Mathematics?
- with K. O. Friedrichs: Supersonic Flow and Shock Waves. New York: Interscience. 1948. Corr. 5th printing. New York: Springer-Verlag. 1999. ISBN 0-387-90232-5.
- Preston, Richard (2008). Panic in Level 4. USA: Random House. p. 38. ISBN 9781400064908. "Robbins wrote most of the book, while Courant got ownership of the copyright and collected most of the royalties but paid almost none of the money to Robbins."
- Giuseppe Pelosi (2007). "The finite-element method, Part I: R. L. Courant: Historical Corner". doi:10.1109/MAP.2007.376627.
- Courant, Richard (1943). "Variational methods for the solution of problems of equilibrium and vibrations". Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society.
- NY Times Obituary "Dr. Richard Courant Dies at 84; Influential Mathematics Scholar; Organizer and Ex. Direcgor of Institute at N.Y.U. Aided Research and Teaching"
- Edwin Rosenberg (November 2008). MAA Focus (MAA): 16–18 http://www.maa.org/pubs/nov08web.pdf
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- "The Manhattan Project and the Met". Scientific American. 2008-12-31.
- The Parsimonious Universe, Stefan Hildebrandt & Anthony Tromba, Springer-Verlag, 1996, page 148
- Lin, C. C. (1951). "Review: Supersonic flow and shock waves, by R. Courant and K. O. Friedrichs". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 57 (1, Part 1): 85–87.
- Richard Courant at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
- O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Richard Courant", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews.
- Biographical memoir – by Peter Lax
- Oral History interview transcript with Richard Courant 9 May 1962, American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library and Archives
- National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir