Robert Osserman

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Robert Osserman
Osserman robert.jpg
Osserman in 1984
Born(1926-12-19)December 19, 1926
DiedNovember 30, 2011(2011-11-30) (aged 84)
EducationHarvard University
Known forChern–Osserman inequality
Osserman conjecture (Riemannian geometry)[1]
Osserman manifolds
Osserman's theorem
Nirenberg's conjecture[2]
AwardsLester R. Ford Award (1980)
Scientific career
InstitutionsStanford University
Doctoral advisorLars Ahlfors
Notable studentsH. Blaine Lawson
David Allen Hoffman
Michael Gage

Robert "Bob" Osserman (December 19, 1926 – November 30, 2011) was an American mathematician who worked in geometry. He is specially remembered for his work on the theory of minimal surfaces.[3]

Raised in Bronx, he went to Bronx High School of Science (diploma, 1942) and New York University. He earned a Ph.D. in 1955 from Harvard University with the thesis Contributions to the Problem of Type (on Riemann surfaces) supervised by Lars Ahlfors.[4]

He joined Stanford University in 1955.[5] He joined the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in 1990.[6] He worked on geometric function theory, differential geometry, the two integrated in a theory of minimal surfaces, isoperimetric inequality, and other issues in the areas of astronomy, geometry, cartography and complex function theory.

Osserman was the head of mathematics at Office of Naval Research, a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Paris and Guggenheim Fellow at the University of Warwick. He edited numerous books and promoted mathematics, such as in interviews with celebrities Steve Martin[7][8] and Alan Alda.[9]

He was an invited speaker at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) of 1978 in Helsinki.[10]

He received the Lester R. Ford Award (1980) of the Mathematical Association of America[11] for his popular science writings.

H. Blaine Lawson, David Allen Hoffman and Michael Gage were Ph.D. students of his.[4]

Robert Osserman died on Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at his home.[5]

Mathematical contributions[edit]

The Keller–Osserman problem[edit]

Osserman's most widely cited research article, published in 1957, dealt with the partial differential equation

He showed that fast growth and monotonicity of f is incompatible with the existence of global solutions. As a particular instance of his more general result:

There does not exist a twice-differentiable function u : ℝn → ℝ such that

Osserman's method was to construct special solutions of the PDE which would facilitate application of the maximum principle. In particular, he showed that for any real number a there exists a rotationally symmetric solution on some ball which takes the value a at the center and diverges to infinity near the boundary. The maximum principle shows, by the monotonicity of f, that a hypothetical global solution u would satisfy u(x) < a for any x and any a, which is impossible.

The same problem was independently considered by Joseph Keller,[12] who was drawn to it for applications in electrohydrodynamics. Osserman's motivation was from differential geometry, with the observation that the scalar curvature of the Riemannian metric e2u(dx2 + dy2) on the plane is given by

An application of Osserman's non-existence theorem then shows:

Any simply-connected two-dimensional smooth Riemannian manifold whose scalar curvature is negative and bounded away from zero is not conformally equivalent to the standard plane.

By a different maximum principle-based method, Shiu-Yuen Cheng and Shing-Tung Yau generalized the Keller–Osserman non-existence result, in part by a generalization to the setting of a Riemannian manifold.[13] This was, in turn, an important piece of one of their resolutions of the Calabi–Jörgens problem on rigidity of affine hyperspheres with nonnegative mean curvature.[14]

Non-existence for the minimal surface system in higher codimension[edit]

In collaboration with his former student H. Blaine Lawson, Osserman studied the minimal surface problem in the case that the codimension is larger than one. They considered the case of a graphical minimal submanifold of euclidean space. Their conclusion was that most of the analytical properties which hold in the codimension-one case fail to extend. Solutions to the boundary value problem may exist and fail to be unique, or in other situations may simply fail to exist. Such submanifolds (given as graphs) might not even solve the Plateau problem, as they automatically must in the case of graphical hypersurfaces of Euclidean space.

Their results pointed to the deep analytical difficulty of general elliptic systems and of the minimal submanifold problem in particular. Many of these issues have still failed to be fully understood, despite their great significance in the theory of calibrated geometry and the Strominger–Yau–Zaslow conjecture.[15][16]


  • Two-Dimensional Calculus[17][18] (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968; Krieger, 1977; Dover Publications, Inc, 2011) ISBN 978-0155924109 ; ISBN 978-0882754734 ; ISBN 978-0486481630
  • A Survey of Minimal Surfaces (1969, 1986)
  • Poetry of the Universe: A Mathematical Exploration of the Cosmos (Random House, 1995)[19][20][21]


Topics named after Robert Osserman[edit]

Selected research papers[edit]

  • Osserman, Robert. On the inequality Δu≥f(u). Pacific J. Math. 7 (1957), 1641–1647.
  • Osserman, Robert (1964). "Global properties of minimal surfaces in E3 and En". Annals of Mathematics.
  • Osserman, Robert (1970). "A proof of the regularity everywhere of the classical solution to Plateau's problem". Annals of Mathematics.
  • Lawson, H. B., Jr.; Osserman, R. Non-existence, non-uniqueness and irregularity of solutions to the minimal surface system. Acta Math. 139 (1977), no. 1–2, 1–17.
  • Osserman, Robert (1959). "Proof of a conjecture of Nirenberg." Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics.
  • Chern, Shiing-Shen, and Robert Osserman (1967). "Complete minimal surfaces in euclidean n-space." Journal d'Analyse Mathématique.


  1. ^ Gilkey, P.B. (2001) [1994], "Osserman conjecture", Encyclopedia of Mathematics, EMS Press
  2. ^ Weisstein, Eric W. "Nirenberg's Conjecture". MathWorld.
  3. ^ Hoffman, David; Matisse, Henri (1987). "The computer-aided discovery of new embedded minimal surfaces". The Mathematical Intelligencer. 9 (3): 8–21. doi:10.1007/BF03023947. ISSN 0343-6993. S2CID 121320768. Also available in the book Wilson, Robin; Gray, Jeremy, eds. (2012). Mathematical Conversations: Selections from The Mathematical Intelligencer. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781461301950.
  4. ^ a b Robert Osserman at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  5. ^ a b "Robert Osserman, noted Stanford mathematician, dies at 84". Stanford Report. 2011-12-16. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. ^ biopage at MSRI
  7. ^ Mathematical One-Liners Exert a Magical Draw (April 30, 2003)
  8. ^ ROBIN WILLIAMS STEVE MARTIN Funny Number 12.15.02 msri bob osserman PART # 1 and ROBIN WILLIAMS STEVE MARTIN Funny Number 12.15.02 msri bob osserman PART # 2
  9. ^ From M*A*S*H to M*A*T*H: Alan Alda in person Archived 2008-05-17 at the Wayback Machine from MSRI (Jan 17, 2008)
  10. ^ International Mathematical Union (IMU)
  11. ^ "Paul R. Halmos - Lester R. Ford Awards | Mathematical Association of America". Retrieved 2016-05-16.
  12. ^ Keller, J. B. On solutions of Δu=f(u). Comm. Pure Appl. Math. 10 (1957), 503–510.
  13. ^ S.Y. Cheng and S.T. Yau. Differential equations on Riemannian manifolds and their geometric applications. Comm. Pure Appl. Math. 28 (1975), no. 3, 333–354.
  14. ^ Shiu Yuen Cheng and Shing-Tung Yau. Complete affine hypersurfaces. I. The completeness of affine metrics. Comm. Pure Appl. Math. 39 (1986), no. 6, 839–866.
  15. ^ Reese Harvey and H. Blaine Lawson, Jr. Calibrated geometries. Acta Math. 148 (1982), 47–157.
  16. ^ Andrew Strominger, Shing-Tung Yau, and Eric Zaslow. Mirror symmetry is T-duality. Nuclear Phys. B 479 (1996), no. 1-2, 243–259.
  17. ^ Wood, J. T. (1970-01-01). "Review of Two-Dimensional Calculus". The American Mathematical Monthly. 77 (7): 786–787. doi:10.2307/2316244. JSTOR 2316244.
  18. ^ Review by Tom Schulte (2012)
  19. ^ "Book Review – A Geometer's View of Space Time: Poetry of the Universe: A Mathematical Exploration of the Cosmos" (PDF), Notices of the AMS, 42 (6): 675–677, June 1995
  20. ^ Abbott, Steve (1995-01-01). "Review of Poetry of the Universe: A Mathematical Exploration of the Cosmos". The Mathematical Gazette. 79 (486): 611–612. doi:10.2307/3618110. JSTOR 3618110.
  21. ^ La Via, Charlie (1997-01-01). "Review of Poetry of the Universe: A Mathematical Exploration of the Cosmos". SubStance. 26 (2): 140–142. doi:10.2307/3684705. JSTOR 3684705.
  22. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Robert Osserman". Retrieved 2017-03-14.
  23. ^ "2003 JPBM Communications Award" (PDF), Notices of the AMS, 50 (5): 571–572, May 2003