Why did she become a mathematician? “For the simple reason that I enjoy maths!” The response comes without hesitation and seems entirely authentic. Whenever Professor Brigitte Forster-Heinlein talks about mathematics, you can sense her deep enthusiasm for this discipline. The German Mathematical Society (DMV) has now named the holder of the Chair of Applied Mathematics at the University of Passau the “Maths Maker” for the months of May and June 2021. Among other things, this honours Forster-Heinlein’s commitment to the Passau Maths Museum, which she founded (and continues to curate) until the present day. The institution’s aim is to make mathematics tangible – in the truest sense of the word for all interested parties – with many vivid exhibits.
“Mathematics is alive and kicking, and anything but dry,” emphasises Forster-Heinlein. The public image, she says, is dominated by classical school mathematics: “There is a lot of calculation and little proof in school,” she explains. Yet, it is precisely the proof that actually constitutes mathematics. “It was a shock for me to sit in university after my A-levels and follow a very precise proof scheme,” she admits. “I’ve never needed the calculator since that day.” Rather, she says, mathematics is about figuring out how to render facts clear: by verifying, by falsifying, and by looking for counterexamples. This requires extreme creativity and plenty of training because the primary burden is not rooted in the stubborn calculation of results but rather the proof or refutation of facts. “You have to learn this procedure, and it is exhausting,” she admits. But it can also be very satisfying and uplifting, she explains, when you have actually written down a proof that is quite exact. “When students notice my grin from ear to ear when we’ve gone through a long proof right to the end and understood it – my enthusiasm then overflows and can’t help but envelop others in the process.”
I’ve never needed the calculator since I graduaded.
Many people find maths itself difficult, she says. But it’s about something completely different: “Mathematics is very clear, you can’t discuss it for long.” It doesn’t matter whether something is beautifully formulated or pretty to look at: A statement is either provable, or disprovable, or undecidable, i.e. neither of the two. “And if something is not true, or you no longer understand a fact beyond a certain point, you have to be able to admit it. That takes courage, too.” In mathematics, you can’t talk your way out of a solution. It is precisely because of this precision and clarity that Forster-Heinlein burns with all her heart for the subject at hand. And she passes on her enthusiasm to her students with just as much intensity.
Brigitte Forster-Heinlein studied mathematics with a minor in electrical engineering at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the University of Metz in France. She received her doctorate in 2001 with a thesis on anharmonic Fourier series for signal analysis. Thereafter, the mathematician conducted research at the Helmholtz-Zentrum München (the German Research Center for Environmental Health) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, among other places. From 2006, she was a Junior Professor for Mathematical Modelling in Biomedical Engineering at TUM. In April 2012, she was appointed to the Professorship for Applied Mathematics at the University of Passau. Professor Forster-Heinlein has already received several awards for her work, for example, from the Swiss Society for Biomedical Engineering (SSBE) and through a Marie Curie Excellence Team Grant from the European Commission.
Putting a face to mathematics
The German Mathematical Society (DMV), founded in 1890, sees itself as representing the interests of mathematics in society, schools, universities and at an educational policy level. It promotes research, teaching and the various applications of mathematics, as well as a national and international process of exchange regarding experiences with the subject. Since 2008, the German Mathematical Society (DMV) has been awarding prizes every two months to people who are particularly committed to mathematics and who give it a face.
Ars legendi Faculty Award in Mathematics
The award ceremony for the Ars legendi Faculty Award 2021 for outstanding university teaching in the field of Mathematics to Professor Forster-Heinlein took place as an online event via Zoom on 10th June 2021.