Gert-Martin Greuel

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From EWM Newsletter n°22 (2013/1)

Gert-Martin Greuel studied mathematics and physics at the Universities of Göttingen and Zürich (ETH). He obtained his PhD in mathematics in 1973 in Göttingen under the direction of Egbert Brieskorn. From 1973 to 1981, he held a position at the University of Bonn. He has spent several research stays abroad, including at the IHES and at the Universities of Nice, Chapel Hill, Paris VII, UNAM Mexico and Valladolid. From 1981 he has held a full professorship position at the University of Kaiserslautern.

From 2002 till March 2013 he was the Director of the Mathematisches Forschungsinstitut Oberwolfach and from 2010 til March 2013 Chair of European Research Centres of Mathematics (ERCOM). Since 1993 he has been the Director of the Centre for Computer Algebra at the University of Kaiserslautern. He is Editor-in-Chief of “Zentralblatt MATH” and Editor of “Ergebnisse der Mathematik und ihrer Grenzgebiete” and Associate Editor of “Revista Matematica Complutense”.

His research fields are singularity theory, algebraic geometry and computer algebra. Together with engineers he applies computer algebra to micro electronics. He is one of the authors of the computer algebra system Singular. Recently he became active in raising public awareness of mathematics, in particular by directing the exhibition IMAGINARY and by developing it into an interactive open source platform.

In 2009 he received an Honorary Doctorate from Leibniz Universität Hannover and in 2011 he became Honorary Member of the Real Sociedad Matematica Espanola (RSME). He is married and has five children and 14 grandchildren.

EWM: You were director of MFO for about 13 years. Can you describe the most important achievements of the institute during this period?

GMG: I was director for 11 years and 2 months. Although the basic mission of the Institute has not changed, there were a number of significant improvements. These can be classified into structural, financial and scientific changes. In addition, the MFO launched important outreach activities for the general public.

The most important structural change was that in 2005, the MFO became a member of the Leibniz Association. That meant the foundation of a non-profit organization which is responsible for the scientific operation and that was separated from the Society for Mathematical Research, which owns the land, the building and the library. The negotiations were difficult because we insisted that the scientific commission, which decides on applications for workshops, etc., should remain independent from any non-scientific influences from policy or group interests, because this principle had been one of the main reasons for the success of Oberwolfach in the past. This was achieved and was probably the most important success of the restructuring of the MFO.

By entering the Leibniz Association, the urgent need to increase the budget could be achieved. Although the conversion of the structure represented a considerable extra cost of red tape, but as a member of the Leibniz Association, the MFO has a solid long-term legal and financial basis.

The core of the academic program is the weekly workshops and mini-workshops. In the longer-term stays, we have additionally introduced to the already established Research in Pairs program, the Oberwolfach-Leibniz postdoctoral program. One of the main focus of my work in the scientific field was the increased support of young scientists. Right now, in principle, can all young scientists of the various programs in Oberwolfach have their travel costs reimbursed.

As part of the Year of Mathematics in Germany in 2008, the MFO has created the travelling exhibition IMAGINARY to life. Meanwhile, IMAGINARY spread over three continents and with about 800,000 visitors worldwide it is extraordinarily successful. IMAGINARY was also used for the competition of MPE2013. At the inauguration in Paris in March this year it was released as an open source project ( In addition, the MFO has founded together with the community Oberwolfach the Museum of Minerals and mathematics MiMa.

EWM: Is there anything that you would have liked to change or improve in MFO activities, had the possibility arisen?

GMG: There are always things you would have done differently in retrospect. But I can think of no essential things.

EWM: MFO has recently started to fund short-term postdoc positions. Has this proven to be a successful strategy so far? Are there plans for long-term postdoc or visiting positions for more senior mathematicians? What about special semesters on dedicated topics?

GMG: I think you can say that the post-doctoral program OWLF is already a success. It does not replace a full research position but supplements this by several month stays in Oberwolfach, with the possibility to invite coworkers. The participants of the OWLF-program repeatedly report that their stay in Oberwolfach was the most intense research in their academic career so far. Some of them already have an academic position. The program was also evaluated by the Scientific Advisory Board of the MFO as successful. It certainly requires some time before it is known even further and it is better utilized.

So far there are neither plans for long-term positions for postdocs or senior mathematicians, nor for special semesters on dedicated topics. Because of the remoteness of the site, this does not seem to make sense.

EWM: Numerous mathematicians have participated at MFO workshops and benefited from the MFO resources. Can you shortly describe the way the Institute is funded? Regarding private funding, if relevant for MFO, how does the institute succeed in attracting funds?

GMG: Core funding will be covered by public funds. Of these, 50% by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and 50% by the provinces.

The MFO receives additional funds from the NSF and the JAMS for young scientists from the U.S. and Japan. The DFG supports special projects to improve the library. Support from the Oberwolfach Foundation and the Friends of Oberwolfach concerns includes the library, special construction measures and travel expenses in certain cases. The VolkswagenStifung and the Klaus Tschira Foundation have funded the library extension, the Oberwolfach Seminars for graduate students and postdocs are partially funded by the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation. IMAGINARY was partially funded by the BMBF and the Klaus Tschira Stifung. Earlier, the EU had supported several workshops in Oberwolfach, but that option has disappeared a few years ago.

All this support was based on applications to specially selected funding bodies, with the aim to improve the service of Oberwolfach for the mathematical community.

There have been very few direct funds from industry. But there is indirect support from senior members of the industry in the Oberwolfach Foundation.

EWM: In what way will the institute be supporting MPE activities?

GMG: The main support is provided through IMAGINARY as the platform for the MPE competition and as a portal for interesting contributions (movies, simulations, galleries) on the issue of MPE. There are also several workshops in Oberwolfach, dealing with mathematical problems of the earth.

EWM: Several outstanding mathematical institutions, for instance MSRI (Berkeley), Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge, Mittag-Leffler Institute (Sweden), and the Institute for Advanced Studies (Princeton), annually support programs for women in mathematics. Does MFO have such a program, or plans for such a program in the future?

GMG: The The MFO attempts to increase the number of female mathematicians in its programs, this has been particular successful in the new OWLF program. Because Oberwolfach, unlike the above-mentioned institutions, does not perform thematic priority programs, there are no special programs for women in mathematics. However, Oberwolfach already hosted a mini workshop which was exclusively performed by women for women. For such activities, the MFO is open.

EWM: What did you enjoy most about your activity as an MFO director?

GMG: Scientifically very rewarding were the weekly discussions with the organizers and participants of the workshops, which gave an insight into new developments across the whole spectrum of mathematics.

Personally, the cooperation with the friendly, competent and highly motivated staff of the Institute has given me great pleasure.

I would also not deny that the praise of the guests on the MFO has made me quite happy.

EWM: Can you tell us an interesting story from MFO during your term as a director?

GMG: Legendary is the story with the umbrella in connection with the library extension, for which the MFO urgently needed money and where our efforts had been unsuccessful so far. During a break in the 60-year celebration of the MFO, the Secretary General of Vokswagen Foundation, Wilheln Krull, and the Managing Director of the Klaus Tschira Foundation, Klaus Tschira, stood in the rain for a little chat. I got an umbrella, stood between the two, and thus occupied a strategically favorable position to formulate our request for an extension of the library. After less than five minutes, the two sponsors agreed: "Together we tackle that." And so it happened, of course, after a proper request to the Volkswagen Foundation and the Klaus Tschira Foundation.