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Iris Runge: A Life at the Crossroads of Mathematics, Science, and Industry

Renate Tobies
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Science Networks Historical Studies
[Reviewed by
Tom Schulte
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This scholarly work uses the education and career as an industrial mathematician of Iris Runge (1888–1966) as a way to investigate the intersection of industry and mathematics, particularly in Germany at the turbulent time of the World Wars. Runge’s path through this time and place was pioneering, both for her individual advances and in the fact few women had proceeded her into the laboratories of industry. Detailed footnotes, several photographs and references stretching over thirty pages show the effort the author took to document Iris Runge’s scientific life.

The daughter of the Göttingen pioneer of applied mathematics Carl Runge (1856–1927), Iris entered upon her path as a professional mathematician by being one of fewer than three hundred women who qualified in 1906 for university admission. Undoubtedly, preparation at home gave her an edge. Along with often bright and cheerful letters from her, we have such illuminating correspondence as Carl Runge and Max Planck swapping tutoring advice.

Insights into the lives of Iris’s contemporaries season this biography. We, for example, see Felix Klein separated from his famous bottles to unkink curricula. This was during Klein’s initiative to create a center for mathematical and scientific research. Through memoranda to government agencies and progressive proposals, Klein forged Göttingen into a wellspring of pure and applied mathematics while also pushing for the right of women to study. This all happened during Iris’s student years in Göttingen, so that the time and place of her matriculation saw her enter a particularly fertile era in the history of applied mathematics. She was prepared for success by her interdisciplinary education at the University of Göttingen.

This book covers in some detail the beginnings of institutionalized mathematical problem solving at the Osram and Telefunken Corporations during the feverish years of radio and electron tube research. Iris was employed as a mathematical authority at these companies in Berlin. During her tenure she gave theoretical underpinnings to connections then being made between statistics and quality control, between physical-chemical models and mass production. Drawing heavily on her father’s graphical methods, she produced nomograms, graphical tools for statistical quality control, and other practical simplifications for engineers.

Experience and opportunity formed Iris Runge into a person who said that, “New and significant findings are nearly always made when a successful bridge has been built between two or more branches of science that have hitherto been kept apart. The established methods and conclusions of one individual field will often result in unexpected applications when adopted by another, and these new applications will often, in turn, lead to the development of novel and fruitful methods of research.” This reads very much like one of Klein’s memos.

In a detailed and even dry fashion, the book explores the organization of industrial laboratories down to department staff lists. It discusses the working relationship between theoretical and experimental concerns in a corporation active internationally and getting ever more military contracts.

This microscopic focus cannot completely remove the sensation of impending calamity of the 1930s. We see the joy in her work that came back into Iris’s letters after World War I evaporate as the Nazi government comes into existence and she begins to feel that her progressive, liberal activism may become a liability. Surprisingly and thankfully, the research lab offers some continuity of experience for its staff; it is a sort of intellectual ark protected from the raging European war.

Only to the extent necessary to discuss activities inside the facilities does this work investigate the socio-economic and political realities of the Second World War. Among the appendices, however, is a lengthy multi-page letter from Iris, dated May 1945, discussing the privations of defeated Berlin, the effort she expended to protect herself from rapacious Russian soldiers, and the kindnesses shown to German army soldiers as countrymen.

While offering important insight into the historical linkages of science and industry, this work also advertises itself as having something to add to the “fields of Gender and Women’s Studies”. I doubt that the commentary, asides really, on the conditions that enabled a specific woman to achieve such professional prominence qualify as significant in this field. 

Tom Schulte, an instructor in mathematics at Oakland Community College, paid much of his way through university applying “solid trigonometry” in machine shops dedicated to experimental manufacturing engineering and later designed and built statistical process control solutions for manufacturing enterprises.

Foreword.- Author’s Preface.- 1 Introduction.- 2 Formative Groups.- 3 Mathematics at The Osram and Telefunken Corporations.- 4 Interactions Between Science, Politics, And Society.- 5 Post-War Developments And Concluding Remarks.- Appendix.- Bibliography.- Index of Names.