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Marcel Grossmann

Claudia Graf-Grossmann
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Springer Biographies
[Reviewed by
Allen Stenger
, on

Marcel Grossmann (1878–1936) was a Swiss mathematician (born in Hungary) who specialized in analytic, descriptive, and projective geometry. The glamorous portion of his life was a collaboration with Albert Einstein. The present book is a family biography by his granddaughter. The book is mostly not a scientific biography, but it does include a 20-page Epilogue by the historian Tilman Sauer assessing Grossmann’s scientific work.

Graf-Grossmann is the head of a public relations firm in Switzerland and has published a novel. She draws on some family diaries and transcribed family stories, as well as a great deal of published information, for her data (the sources are carefully footnoted). There are a large number of photographs, mostly from the Grossmann family’s private collection. There’s also a photographic reprint of Grossman and Einstein’s first joint paper, “Entwurf einer verallgemeinerten Relativitätstheorie” (in German, not in translation). The book was originally published in 2015 in German by Römerhof Verlag and now in English translation by Springer.

Most of Grossmann’s career was at the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zürich (now ETH Zürich), both as student and teacher. He and Einstein were undergraduates there and became lifelong friends. Grossmann was a much better mathematician (and student) than Einstein, and helped him with his mathematics both in school and later in Einstein’s research, and was apparently the one who introduced Einstein to tensors. Grossmann and his family were much better connected than Einstein, and were able to help him get jobs early in his career. Einstein and Grossman wrote two joint papers in 1913 and 1914, prefiguring the general theory of relativity. Einstein moved to Berlin in 1914, which cut short their collaboration, but not their friendship. This joint work qualified Grossmann as one of the founders of relativity theory. The “Marcel Grossmann Meeting” is named in his honor; it is a gathering held every three years since 1975 to review progress in general relativity and gravitation theory and is held in different cities around the world.

Grossman’s work with Einstein made him famous, but apart from that he had a fairly conventional academic career, including a lot of administrative work. He was a professor at ETH Zürich, wrote several textbooks, and worked to strengthen the mathematical instruction at Swiss universities. He also worked to standardize and improve secondary education in Switzerland, which until then had been controlled separately by each canton. He was one of the founders of the Swiss Mathematical Society. He was also involved in politics and culture. He was a founder of the Neue Helvetische Gesellschaft, whose purpose was to increase Swiss unity and awareness, and was a founder and editor of the short-lived newspaper Neue Schweizer Zeitung.

Grossmann developed multiple sclerosis in his mid-30s, which cut his productivity and eventually led to his death at age 58.

The production of the book leaves something to be desired. In my copy the odd-numbered pages are printed on the left instead of the right, and it’s clear from the layout that this was not intentional. This doesn’t affect the readability, except for a few places where a photo is split across now not-facing pages. There’s a family tree in the front whose type is almost too small to read. There are a number of bad page breaks where the bottom third or half of the page is blank before an image; it looks like the text was not flowed properly around the images. Tilman Sauer is not credited on the title page or on the Epilogue (but is credited in the body of the work and on the back cover). There’s no general index, but there is a name index (mislabelled Author Index).

Allen Stenger is a math hobbyist and retired software developer. He is an editor of the Missouri Journal of Mathematical Sciences. His personal web page is His mathematical interests are number theory and classical analysis.

See the table of contents in the publisher's webpage.