University of Texas
Engelbert Levin Schücking
May 23, 1926–January 05, 2015

 

 

Engelbert Levin Schücking

Engelbert Levin Schücking, cosmologist, died in his Greenwich Village apartment on January 5, 2015. Although he had been sick for some time, he continued to meet his classes at NYU almost up to his last day. In his research, he concentrated on understanding the origin and structure of the universe. The Einstein equations were his principal tool, but that did not exclude the study of Newtonian theory, of its relation to general relativity, and of alternative cosmologies.

Engelbert Levin Schücking was born in Hoerde, Germany, on May 23, 1926. His family had a long academic history and were active in liberal politics, in opposition to the Nazis. His father was forbidden to practice law and died under persecution in 1943. Nonetheless, with help of his teachers, Engelbert was able to complete his education in Germany. His interest in cosmology began very early on. Still a child, he was given a small telescope to look at the stars. At fourteen, he counted sunspots for the Zürich Observatory. At Göttingen, he studied with Werner Heisenberg and Richard Becker. In 1952, he rang the doorbell of Pascual Jordan's home and announced that he wanted to study general relativity. By 1956, he had done sufficient work, on Jordan’s theory related to Dirac’s large numbers hypothesis, to obtain the Doctor of Science degree in mathematics from the University of Hamburg.

Engelbert arrived in the United States in 1961 to join Peter Bergmann’s group at Syracuse University. That year resulted in a paper with Bergmann and Ivor Robinson exploring the limitations of an asymptotically flat space time. They showed that at spatial infinity there will always be a deficit in closing a parallelogram due to the curvature induced by the enclosed mass. After Engelbert spent a semester at Cornell University, Alfred Schild brought him to Austin, TX, where he became Professor of Physics in 1963. Together they built a strong research group in general relativity. Then, with Ivor Robinson in Dallas and Peter Bergmann in Syracuse, they organized the 1963 Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics. Engelbert opened this first of the biennial Texas Symposia saying, “We Texans welcome you to Dallas.” This meeting focused on the novel observation of quasars and on gravitational collapse and subsequent meetings on pulsars and cosmological acceleration. The importance of the first meeting is shown in that Physics Today published a report on it by H. Y. Chiu in 1964, and again at the 25th anniversary, in the August 1989 issue, a very vivid account by Engelbert. And in 2014, at the 50th anniversary held in Dallas, Engelbert delivered an hour long history by video as he was not well enough to come to the meeting. In 1966, Engelbert left Texas for New York City. After a year at Yeshiva University, he was appointed Professor of Physics at NYU where he remained to the end of his life.

Engelbert's research was devoted to understanding how the Einstein equations can be used in the description of the Universe. His first appointment was to Hamburg Observatory where he worked with Otto Heckmann. They studied cosmological models with an anisotropic and rotating flow of matter. A systematic study of this problem required the use of three-dimensional Lie groups acting as isometries on space. Engelbert found a novel approach to the description of the corresponding Lie algebras, providing an essential simplification of the original work by Luigi Bianchi. Engelbert presented his results at a seminar in 1957, but never published them himself. His idea became known and of standard use thanks to Wolfgang Kundt who, impressed by the tenfold reduction in the steps of the derivation, took notes of Schucking’s talk and made them accessible to the specialists. Only in 2003, were they published in the General Relativity and Gravitation Journal in an article edited by Andrzej Krasiński and co-authored by several scientists active in the dissemination of these results. Engelbert was much interested in Ernst Mach's principle that local inertial frames are determined by the large scale distribution and motion of masses. It was conjectured that this principle is a consequence of Einstein's theory. Engelbert, in collaboration with István Ozsváth, found a modification of the Kurt Gödel universe, an "anti-Mach metric", providing a counter-example to that conjecture. Heckmann and Schücking also overcame some of the conceptual difficulties of Newtonian cosmology and wrote several influential articles on relativistic and Newtonian cosmology that appeared in the Encyclopedia of Physics and in journals. After settling in New York, Engelbert continued to work and publish papers on relativistic astrophysics, fluid dynamics and thermodynamics. During his last year, he was preparing, with Eugene Surowitz, a study of the Navier-Stokes equations on the three-sphere.

Engelbert was an excellent teacher. Not only did he guide 20 students to their PhD, but he also taught more than 6.500 students and reached a nationwide audience for two years in the 1960s teaching a Sunrise Semester television course on astronomy. In Physics Today and the American Journal of Physics, with collaborators and alone, he wrote articles on various topics related to cosmology and astrophysics. Shortly before his death, together with Eugene Surowitz, he completed a book, Einstein’s Apple: Homogeneous Einstein Fields, that has been released by World Scientific publishers. He also had a strong sense of history and wrote about Jordan, Pauli, Einstein, Nordström, and Bergmann.

Engelbert's qualities as a person, scientist and teacher earned him many devoted friends and grateful students. In 1996, at the occasion of Engelbert's 70th birthday, there was a Symposium at NYU. Its proceedings, edited by Alex Harvey, dedicated to Engelbert and published by Springer under the title On Einstein's Path, contain essays by over 40 authors; among them are Abhay Ashtekar, Peter Bergmann, Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat, Jürgen Ehlers, George Ellis, Malcolm MacCallum, Ezra Ted Newman, István Ozsváth, Roger Penrose, Jerzy Plebański, Ivor Robinson, Dennis Sciama and Edward Spiegel.

In a letter addressed to Engelbert's family, Roger Penrose wrote: Engelbert was certainly an extraordinary man. Not only did he possess an almost unique combination of depth of technical knowledge and genuine originality of thought, but he was perhaps the most generous and selfless person that I have ever met.

In Yiddish there is a word to describe a person of wisdom, humor, sensitivity, and human concern. With respect to his friends, colleagues, and especially his family, Engelbert Schucking was a Mensch.

Joshua N Goldberg, Professor Emeritus, Syracuse University
Andrzej Trautman, Professor Emeritus, Warsaw University

Published in online Physics Today.


The New York Times on January 14, 2015

ENGELBERT SCHÜCKING

Engelbert Schucking, Noted Cosmologist, Dies at 88.

NYU professor Engelbert Levin Schücking dedicated his life to understanding the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe. He died Monday, January 5, 2015, in his apartment in Greenwich Village. He is survived by his partner Olga Greengard, his children Michael, Aleke, Prosper, Heffa and Ivor, and his grandchildren Lea and Noah.

Engelbert was born on May 23, 1926 in Germany to the lawyer, Lothar Schucking, and his wife, Louise. His family had been active in academic life for hundreds of years and was persecuted by the Nazis for their political views. As a child, he watched the night sky through a small telescope, and by the age of 14 was counting sunspots for the Zurich Observatory. But astronomy was only one of his passions. He soon developed an interest in mathematics and physics, and began the scientific journey that continued throughout his life.

At the University of Göttingen, his teachers included such luminaries as Werner Heisenberg. In Hamburg, he became the assistant of Pascual Jordan, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. After obtaining his PhD there in 1955, he worked with Otto Heckmann, a leading cosmologist of the day.

In 1962, Schücking became professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin and turned it into a leading world center for relativity, together with Alfred Schild. In 1963, Schücking initiated the highly successful Symposia on Relativistic Astrophysics, now known as the "Texas Conferences". This symposia series continues semi-annually and remains a venue for a fertile exchange of ideas on relativity, astrophysics and cosmology.

In 2013, at the age of 87, Schücking gave his last speech here. His life's work revolved around the application of differential geometry and Lie group theory to the study of Einstein's field equations, with special emphasis on cosmological solutions. Perhaps most notable are his discoveries of a metric solution describing a finite rotating cosmos, with Istvan Oszváth, and the invention of a classification of 3-dimensional Lie algebras, with application to homogeneous cosmologies.

In 1996, NYU held a symposium to celebrate Schücking's achievements, published by Springer in the book On Einsteins Path. The essays by Roger Penrose, Andrzej Trautman, and many others describe Schückings far-reaching influence on the community of relativists. The astrophysicist, Ed Spiegel, calls him "one of the great heroes of the neo-Newtonian revolution in cosmology," and Roger Penrose credits him for ideas that were fundamental for the development of twistor theory. He adds: "Engelbert's instincts are generated from his own personal deep understandings, and do not at all derive from whatever might be the prevailing fashionable view. He has not only knowledge and judgment, but a profound originality." But his interests were not purely academic. He also helped apply general relativity to correct the timing of the global position satellite.

As a teacher, Schucking was unparalleled. He received an NYU award of excellence for embodying "the highest ideals of the teaching profession." His legacy includes TV appearances on "Sunrise Semester", teaching over 6,500 students and supervising some 20 PhDs —several became influential relativists. "All those who came to know him were deeply impressed by his vast erudition, exhilarated by his subtle humor, and touched by his gentleness and caring nature. His abiding passion for understanding any subject of interest in depth and detail was truly inspiring," says C. V. Vishveshwara, a pioneer in black hole physics.

Schucking died just weeks before the publication of his most recent work, a book about Einsteins theory of gravitation, entitled Einsteins Apple. He believed in the words of the man whose monumental work was the core of his own studies: "Our death is not an end if we have lived on in our children and the younger generation. For they are us; our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life."

 

Engelbert Levin Schücking Photo Album

Fred Hoyle, Ivor Robinson, Engelbert Schücking, Al Schild, Unidentified, First Texas Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics, 1963.

 

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