Paul Ehrenfest

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Paul Ehrenfest (January 18, 1880 – September 25, 1933) was an Austrian and Dutch physicist and mathematician, who made major contributions to the field of statistical mechanics and its relations with quantum mechanics, including the theory of phase transition and the Ehrenfest theorem.



Paul Ehrenfest was born and grew up in Vienna in a Jewish family from Loštice in Moravia. His parents, Sigmund Ehrenfest and Johanna Jellinek, ran a grocery store. Although the family was not overly religious, Paul studied Hebrew and the history of the Jewish people. Later he always emphasized his Jewish roots. Ehrenfest excelled in grade school but did not do well at the Akademisches Gymnasium. His best subject being mathematics. After transferring to the Franz Josef Gymnasium, his marks improved. In 1899 he successfully passed the final exams.

He majored in chemistry at the Technische Hochschule, but took courses at the University of Vienna, in particular from Ludwig Boltzmann on his kinetic theory of thermodynamics. These lectures had a profound influence: they were instrumental in stimulating Ehrenfest’s interest in theoretical physics, defined his main area of research for years to come, and provided an example of inspired teaching. At the time it was customary in the German-speaking world to study at more than one university and in 1901 Ehrenfest transferred to Göttingen, which until 1933 was an important centre for mathematics and theoretical physics. There he met his future wife Tatyana A. Afanasyeva, a young mathematician born in Ukraine and educated in Russia. In the spring of 1903 he met H.A. Lorentz during a short trip to Leiden. In the meantime he prepared a dissertation on Die Bewegung starrer Körper in Flüssigkeiten und die Mechanik von Hertz (The motion of rigid bodies in fluids and the mechanics of Hertz). He obtained his Ph.D. degree on June 23, 1904 in Vienna, where he stayed from 1904 to 1905.

On December 21, 1904 he married Russian mathematician Tatyana Alexeyevna Afanasyeva (1876–1964), who collaborated with him in his work. They had two daughters and two sons: Tatyana ('Tanja') (1905–1984), also became a mathematician; Galinka ('Galja') (1910–1979), became an author and illustrator of children's books; Paul Jr. ('Pavlik') (1915–1939), who also became a physicist; and Vassily ('Wassik') (1918–1933), who had Down's Syndrome[1]

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