On a wall in Gazi, Athens, the face of Albert Einstein mingles with that of Constantine Karatheodory, in a mural by the prolific Greek graffiti artist INO. Who is the man sharing the mural with the father of modern physics?
Constantine Karatheodory was an ethnic Greek born a subject of the Ottoman Empire. His father was a diplomat and Karatheodory was born in Belgium and grew up speaking several languages. Having studied military engineering, at 27 he gave up a budding career to study mathematics. With the exception of a brief stint in Greece, he spent the rest of his life teaching mathematics in German Universities.
His contributions, although significant, remain obscure to the non-mathematician. He dabbled in almost every field of mathematics and his proofs are admired for their “elegant simplicity”. He also contributed valuable textbooks (which were clearly written and took an unconventional approach) and was active in establishing educational institutions.
The Einstein connection
To the general public he is mostly known for his connection with Einstein; apparently there was mutual respect and cooperation between the two. It has been said that he helped develop the theory of Special Relativity (published in 1905). However, as the only surviving letters between the two date from after the theory of General Relativity had also been published (in 1916), this is probably not true. In a 1954 interview, Einstein referred to him as “my teacher;” this may have been due to Karatheodory’s 1924 paper on Special Relativity, in which he showed how Einstein’s axioms could be simplified.