Saturday, October 9, 2010
A Long Life
Summer never used to end at Gerhard Ringel's house on the waterfront in Santa Cruz, California. The sundial he had installed on the southern wall showed daylight savings time all year around. To curious visitors he would point out that the hour was marked by the shadow of a rod parallel to the axis of the earth. He was a teacher at heart and loved to share whatever knowledge he was excited about. A young boy in school, he explained mathematical theories to his classmates guided by his teacher. Needless to say it was his job to do the math home work for those a grade above him. He became a famous mathematician, a pioneer in the field of graph theory who created a breakthrough to solve the four color map theorem. If you want to know more about his research check out the article about the Ringel-Youngs-Theorem in wikipedia.com. His popularity with his students in Germany and the United States was based on his excellent ability to explain the subject while telling stories and jokes during his lectures. Once a year he took his Santa Cruz students surfing, a sport that he taught himself when middle aged. He used to ride a unicycle and walk on his hands, at seventy his staff took a picture of him standing on his head. When his granddaughter told him that math and sports were her favorite subjects, he was pleased. Dr. Ringel was a survivor who endured nine years of serving in Hitler’s army and in Stalin’s POW camps. His way to avoid depression and illness was to focus on studying math while a soldier and learning Russian as a prisoner of war. When he returned from Russia, all he owned was the used Red Army uniform he wore. He had lost his home and possessions in Czechoslovakia, where the German minority had been forced to leave the country after World War II. He joined his wife, who was a refugee in West Germany, went back to school, got his PhD and started a family. For many years he taught at the universities of Bonn and Berlin before he was invited to continue his research at UCSC. Even though he was fluent in English and wrote his books and articles in this language he liked to joke that the best part about teaching math was that the students taught him English at the same time. Besides being a professor he was an excellent chess player and an avid butterfly collector. At one time he raised, to the dismay of his wife, seven generations of moths in the kitchen. He donated his world-class collection of butterflies to the Natural History Museum of UCSC. Gerhard’s love for life did not diminish when old and ill. Bedridden, without being able to talk he still enjoyed the warm sun, a bowl of strawberries or his favorite chocolates. Family and friends were blessed with his contagious smile of serenity and gratitude whenever they visited. He died peacefully in his home on June 24th in 2008. Gerhard Ringel outlived both of his wives and is survived by three children and four grandchildren.