The Norwegian Mathematical Society

Some history

by Bent Birkeland

[The summary of the society's history below is not a direct translation of the Norwegian page Historikk (also by Bent Birkeland).]


Arnfinn PalmstrømPoul HeegaardThe first attempt to create a mathematical society in Norway was made in 1885 by Sophus Lie, who was at that time professor in Oslo. This was a time when similar initiatives took place in many European countries. Moscow Mathematical Society was founded in 1864, London in 1865, the Finnish, French and Danish ones in 1868, -72 and -73, respectively. In Norway, however, the mathematical community at that time was too small, and the venture broke down when Lie moved to Leipzig the following year. But a series of reforms in the high schools and at the university (less Latin and Greek, more modern languages, science and mathematics) during the second half of the 1800's led to a marked expansion of that community, and a formal organisation became necessary. In particular the need for a Norwegian mathematical journal was felt. The difficulty was of course to find financial support for it, and to find persons able and willing to take on the editorial work.


In 1918 the time had come. Preliminary discussions took place in the early autumn. Arnfinn Palmstrøm, who at that time worked as an actuary, and from 1919 until his  untimely death in 1922 was Norway's first professor of insurance mathematics, secured financial support from the major insurance companies.  Government sources also responded positively, and the Danish mathematician Poul Heegaard, who had just been appointed professor of geometry in Oslo, was willing to edit the journal. He had valuable experience from editing the Danish Mathematical Journal for a couple of years. Finally, on the 2nd of November 1918 (incidentally, Heegaard's birthday), the Norwegian Mathematical Society was born.  The purpose was stated broadly as "– connecting mathematically interested persons from all over the country"; the first more specific task was to start a national mathematical journal.  Professor Carl Størmer was elected the Society's first president, Palmstrøm became its secretary, and the more arduous task of editing the journal was taken on by Heegaard for the mathematical side and Anton Alexander for the didactical one. 


The "founding fathers" were university mathematicians, leading school teachers,  actuaries, officers (mainly from the Geodetic Service), and students.  At least two of them came to follow the Society closely for more than sixty years.  The number theorist Viggo Brun (1885-1978) became a university professor, Fredrik Lange Nielsen (1891 - 1980) became a leader in the insurance world in Norway. 


The activities taken on were what one might expect: Meetings, publication, and some lobbying for good mathematical causes. A few of them will be described in what follows.


Publication activities.


Viggo Brun Carl StørmerThe first issue of the "Norsk Matematisk Tidsskrift" ("The Norwegian Mathematical Journal") appeared in 1919, opening, sadly, with the obituary of Ludvig Sylow, written by Thoralf Skolem.  The first volume also contained contributions by the young and promising number-theorists Viggo Brun and Trygve Nagel.


The Journal was intended to serve two not quite compatible purposes: to provide interesting reading for the general mathematically interested public and to give  young and aspiring mathematicians a chance to have their work printed.  That problem found a temporary solution when Heegaard succeeded in obtaining funds for a series of pamphlets, "Norsk Matematisk Forenings Skrifter", ("Publications of the NMF"), where younger Norwegian mathematicians, including Øystein Ore, Thoralf Skolem, Trygve Nagel and Ragnar Frisch (Nobel laureate in Economics 1969) had some of their early work published. Regrettably, for financial reasons this enterprise was discontinued in the 1930's.


The journal continued for 34 years.  Finally, in 1952, it was amalgamated with the corresponding journals in the other Scandinavian countries to form two new periodicals, the "Mathematica Scandinavica" for professional mathematics and the "Nordisk Matematisk Tidskrift", ("Normat" for short), which aims at a broader audience, and which mainly prints work in the Scandinavian languages. Both of these are still active, under the joint auspicies of the five Nordic Mathematical societies. (Danish, Icelandic, Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian.)


Another publishing venture of the Society was Sophus Lie's collected works.  The editors,  Friederich Engel and Poul Heegaard, published the first volume in 1922, but for financial and other reasons the seventh and last volume did not appear until 1960.   


The NMF has also, in the early 1990's, published a series of small popular booklets aimed mainly at college students, on themes varying from  "Number systems" to "Norwegian mathematicians".    



Present activities


Mathematics competitions for college students have been part of the Society's activities nearly constantly from the beginning. For many years starting in 1922, the Crown Prince Olav awarded a prize for the best solutions to a  series of problems posed in the Journal.  Later on other sponsors have taken over.  Now for many years the Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor has sponsored a mass contest in three stages, called the Abel Competition.  At the first stage, it involves several thousand students,  successive eliminations bring it down to about twenty in the final round. Of these the best six are

selected to take part in the International Mathematical Olympiad. (A separate note on this competition is found in this Newsletter, no 32, June 1999.)


Another activity is the winter seminar "Ski and Mathematics" early in January. That tradition was initiated in the 1960's by Professor Karl Egil Aubert.  The seminar was arranged regularly for half a dozen years, then more intermittently  until it was resumed on a regular basis in 1997. It takes place at a hotel in the mountains, the programme being divided between outdoor activities before lunch and mathematics in the afternoon. (There is not much daylight after 3 p. m.  at that time of the year.)


 The Mathematical year 2000


The international Mathematical year was celebrated by the NMF and by others, with activities at the universities, in the schools and in the streets.  Mathematically, the main event was a conference in Trondheim in January.  Later in the year we had a large number of events aimed at the schools and the general public. On one occasion the first 5000 digits of Pi were written along the main street of Oslo!


[In the short period since the Mathematical year 2000, the Society has participated in an number of activities, both promoting mathematics for a general public and also on fields more typically related to the Society's intentions.

In 2002 the bicentennial of Abel's birth was celebrated. The main event was the Abel Bicentennial Conference which took place in Oslo in the beginning of June.

Also in 2002, the Niels Henrik Abel Memorial Fund was established, to award the Abel Prize for outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics. The prize amount is 6 million NOK (about 750,000 Euro) and was awarded for the first time on 3 June 2003. From 2004, the Society will be responsible for a parallel Abel symposium with accompanying publications.

In 2003, the Society's headquarters moved to Trondheim in an effort to revitalize the organization. This move is not thought of as permanent, but rather of as a start in looking at the Society as a national responsibility. From May 2003 the Society's newsletter INFOMAT has been generally available from the home page.

The material in the bracket was added September 29, 2003. Bjørn Ian Dundas]