Linear algebra, without which a Google search would yield a list of disconnected websites, was Hans Schneider’s path — though hardly a straight one — to worldwide mathematical fame.
Schneider, 87, who taught mathematics at UW-Madison from 1959 to 1993, died Tuesday of cancer. He liked to say he retired from teaching, but not from mathematics, and it was in research that he made his mark.
His personal and professional path went from war-threatened Austria of 1938 to today’s Lazy Jane’s Cafe on Williamson Street, where retired university mathematicians, Schneider among them, gather to discuss probabilities.
Schneider was 11 when he and his parents fled Vienna in 1938, living precariously in Czechoslovakia and Poland, then at a Quaker school in Holland before rejoining his parents in Scotland in August 1939, three weeks before the outbreak of war in Europe.
He started his first post-graduate life as an astronomer, not a mathematician, at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, a change he called serendipitous. This was because he was fired, he wrote, within two years because he broke an expensive new astronomical instrument the first time he used it.
Returning to mathematics, he studied under “an idiosyncratic mathematical genius,” A.C. Aitken. In 1959, he and his family emigrated to Madison.
Focusing on linear algebra, Schneider was aware that, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a “dead subject, which all mathematicians must know, but hardly a topic for research.”
For the general public, this would be dense going, but Schneider could see the connections, noting that he saw the field “as an essential ingredient of many mathematical areas.”
This was his vision when he took over a struggling journal, Linear Algebra and its Applications, which he developed into a research publication of worldwide prestige.
“The development of Google would not have happened without this basic knowledge in linear algebra, matrix theory, and Hans has been a catalyzing force in its revival for the past 50 years,” Schneider’s UW-Madison colleague Richard Brualdi noted. (It would be impossible to make the 334,000 results of a Google search on Schneider’s name in just 0.34 seconds, for example.)
Brualdi said his friend was “a pretty smart guy, a well-read guy who enjoyed music a lot. He was admired and loved by many.”
Schneider is survived by his wife, Miriam; daughter, Barbara; sons Peter and Michael; and six grandchildren.
This June, Schneider wrote a personal history of his family from March 1938 to August 1940 that details the chance happenings and bold escape.
“The past was never discussed in my family in subsequent years,” he wrote. “Until I reached my late 60s, I claimed I had no recollection whatsoever of the first 11 years of my life — and believed it.”