IN the early 20th century, the University of Göttingen was called a mathematician’s paradise. It had counted among its faculty giants such as Carl Gauss and Bernhard Riemann, and another, David Hilbert, had hired Emmy Noether — one of the first women in Germany to earn a doctorate degree — on Albert Einstein’s recommendation.
Though faculty and students all over the university had protested against this hire, Hilbert fought for her and the compromise reached was that Noether — who would go on to do the maths that underlay Einstein’s theory of general relativity and would one day be called the founder of modern algebra — would be allowed to teach there but for no pay and under Hilbert’s name.
As it turns out, the end of higher education, or at least the end of the era of Göttingen’s dominance, was marked not so much by Noether’s arrival as by her departure, when she was first of the faculty fired by the Nazis for being a Jew. Soon after, students would block the doorways of Jewish professors’ classrooms to keep them from teaching. Those in the faculty would be exiled, fired or taken to concentration camps and some would commit suicide.
Others would escape to the US where they developed the projects that would bring about the first nuclear bomb and be credited for ending the war.
It is in aftermath of all this that my novel, The Tenth Muse, begins: the protagonist, Katherine, grows up in rural Michigan, in a country that is suddenly home to a huge proportion of the world’s best scientists, who arrived as refugees from war. Her personal and professional history lead her to Göttingen, central Germany. What she finds is a city remarkably well preserved, having escaped bombing — charming red-roofed buildings, cobbled streets and a town square, surrounded by an ancient city wall.
But before she can fall too much in love with this place, where quantum mechanics was born, where the person to first theorise the black hole was a student, where mathematicians and physicists used to meet daily in their adjoining courtyard, she meets a faculty member who pierces her daydream.
‘Some say it’s a shame the city wasn’t bombed into oblivion,’ he says and tells her that David Hilbert, when asked near the end of his life about the famous mathematics programme he had built, which had attracted the best minds of Europe, replied, ‘What mathematics? There is no mathematics in Göttingen any more.’
What Katherine learns is that the glory of Göttingen’s history cannot be separated from its horror. For centuries, it was a place of openness that embodied the best of the scientific spirit. And then, so quickly as to be almost unbelievable — in just a matter of years — the city and its university turned in on themselves and, to their great loss and ours, purged themselves of those minds.
■ The Tenth Muse is published by Little, Brown on November 7
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