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Aleksandr Danilovich Aleksandrov was born on August 4, 1912 in the village of Volyn and lived in St. Petersburg from a very young age. ( St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd in 1914, then Leningrad in 1924, and finally reverted to its old name in 1991.) He passed away in St. Petersburg on July 27, 1999.

After finishing secondary school in 1929 he entered the Faculty of Physics of Leningrad State University, intending to specialize in theoretical physics. He studied under the leading theoretical physicist Vladimir Aleksandrovich Fok (1898-1974), and also learnt mathematics from the eminent geometer and algebraist Boris Nikolaevich Delone (Delaunay) (1890-1980), whose work on geometry of numbers and crystallography fascinated him. He graduated in 1933 and continued his research under the supervision of Fok and Delone, defending his Ph.D thesis in 1935 and his D.Sc thesis in 1937.

In 1937 he was appointed a professor of geometry at Leningrad State University. In 1938 he joined the Leningrad Branch of the Steklov Institute of Mathematics of the USSR Academy of Sciences (now the Russian Academy of Sciences). From 1942 to 1944 he moved to Kazan with the Institute, then returned to Leningrad State University in 1944. In 1964, at the invitation of Mikhail Alexseevich Lavrent'ev (1900-1980), he moved to Siberia and became the Head of the Department of Geometry at Novosibirsk State University, as well as the Head of Department of Geometry of the Mathematical Institute of the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences. He was known for his attentiveness and generosity in sharing ideas with the many graduate students that he supervised, thereby building up an impressive school of research. He continued his teaching and research at the Leningrad Branch of Steklov Institute of Mathematics from 1986 on.

From 1952 to 1964 Aleksandrov was the Rector of Leningrad State University. Based on the principles of universal humanity, of responsibility and of scientific excellence, he courageously and energetically supported colleagues against Lysenko-type pseudo-science in those days of persecution. It was recorded in an essay written on the occasion of his eightieth birthday:

In those difficult and terrible times when Soviet biology was completely dominated by T.D. Lysenko, Leningrad State University with the active assistance of the Rector A.D. Aleksandrov established a department of genetics, where the scientific theory of heredity and variability was taught, and not Lysenko's ravings. Students of biology, sent down from other universities for attempting to study genetics illegally, were given the chance to continue their education within the walls of Leningrad State University.In a statement made by the Leningrad Mathematical Society on March 28, 1989, it was said:

Leningrad scholars remember the numerous good deeds of A.D. Aleksandrov: in those difficult years his efforts helped to preserve science and individual scholars, and that required of him great personal courage.In October of 1990, for the contribution to the preservation and development of the study on genetics in Russia, Aleksandrov was honoured, together with a group of biologists, the Order of Labour of the Red Banner.

Aleksandrov was a mathematician of international reputation, who made significant and diversified contributions to crystallography, the theory of convex bodies, the theory of functions of a real variable, measure theory, partial differential equations and the foundation of relativity theory. His contributions were recognized by many honours, including a USSR State Prize in 1942, the Lobachevsky Medal in 1951 and the First Euler Gold Medal in 1992. His monograph Vypuklye mnogogranniki (Convex Polyhedra) published in 1950, has been translated into many languages, with the English translation published in 2005. Besides monographs and papers on mathematics, he was also noted for his numerous writings on the history and philosophy of science and mathematics. During the tenure as Rector of Leningrad State University he set up in the University studies on sciences that were both new and not yet recognized in his time, such as sociology and mathematical economics.

In 1946 Aleksandrov was elected a Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences (now the Russia Academy of Sciences) in the Division of Physical-Mathematical Sciences. In 1964 he was elected to a Full Member in the Division of Mathematics.

From 1983 on Akeksandrov devoted his time and energy to the teaching of mathematics in school by writing textbooks on geometry both for pupils in schools and for teachers in pedagogical institutes. He served as the Chairman of the Mathematics Section of the Teaching Aids Methodological Council of the USSR Ministry of Education in the later 1980s. In 1959-1962 he was a Member-at-Large of the ICMI.

He wrote many articles for mathematical journals for school, and many entries in Bol'shaya Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya (Great Soviet Encyclopaedia). In 1956, together with Andrey Nikolaevich Kolmogorov (1903-1987) and Mikhail Alexseevich Lavrent'ev (1900-1980), he edited the famous three-volume work Matematika, ee soderzhanie, metody i znaachenie (Mathematics: Its Content, Methods, and Meaning), which attempted to give an idea of the current state of mathematics (in the mid-twentieth century), its origins and probable future development. After half a century, some of the chapters are still considered to be excellent reading for someone who is seriously interested in mathematics looking for a friendly, but not superficial, overview of various important fields. In particular, Aleksandrov wrote Chapter I (A General View of Mathematics), Chapter VII (Curves and Surfaces) and Chapter XVII (Non-Euclidean Geometry), which are examples of excellent expository writing. (The book was translated into English by S.H. Gould and T. Bartha and published by the MIT Press in 1963/1964.)

In an obituary that appears in the Russian Mathematical Surveys (1999), the following words summarize his life:

Aleksandrov's scientific ideas will live for a long time in the work of his students and successors. The unique charm, the combination of youthful spirit and experienced wisdom, fierce temperament and subtle intellect, the selflessness and tenderness of Aleksandr Danilovich remain happy memories of all those who had the good fortune to be with him.

A.D. ALEKSANDROV (On his fiftieth birthday) 1962, Russian Math. Surveys, 17(6), 127-141

A.D. ALEKSANDROV (On his sixtieth birthday) 1973, Russian Math. Surveys, 28(2), 225-230

A.D. ALEKSANDROV (On his seventy-fifth birthday) 1988, Russian Math. Surveys, 43(2), 191-199

A.D. ALEKSANDROV (On his eightieth birthday) 1993, Russian Math. Surveys, 48(4), 257-260

JU.G. RESETNJAK, V.M. PESTUNOVA 1975, Aleksandr Danilovich Aleksandrov: A Bibliography (in Russian), Novosibirsk, Akad. Nauk SSSR Sibirsk. Otdel. Inst. Mat.

A.D. ALEKSANDROV, A.L. VERNER, V.I. RYZHIK 1983, Geometriya: Prob. ucheb. dlya 9-10 klassov srednei shkoly (Geometry: Trial textbook for classes 9-10 of the middle school), Moscow, Prosveshchenie

A.D. ALEKSANDROV, A.L. VERNER, V.I. RYZHIK 1984, Geometriya: dlya 9-10 klassov: Uchebnye posobie dlya uchashchikhsya shkol i classov s uglubl. izucheniem matematiki (Geometry: for the 9-10 classes: textbook of school pupils and classes with an emphasis on the study of mathematics), Moscow, Prosveshchenie

A.D. ALEKSANDROV, A.L. VERNER, V.I. RYZHIK 1984, Probyi uchebnik dlya 6 klassa srednei shkoly (Trial textbook for class 6 of the middle school), Moscow, Prosveshchenie

A.D. ALEKSANDROV 1986, The dialectic of geometry, Matematika v Shkole, 1, 12-19

A.D. ALEKSANDROV 1988, Problemy nauki i pozitsiya uchenogo (Problems in science and the position of the scientist), Leningrad, Nauka

A.D. ALEKSANDROV 1989, On the essence of the university (in Russian), Vestnik Vyssh. Shkoly, 5, 8-18

A.D. ALEKSANDROV 1990, Geometriya (Geometry), Moscow, Nauka

Author

SIU, Man Keung

Department of Mathematics, University of Hong Kong

mathsiu@hkucc.hku.hk