Café Mathematics I

Lvov (also spelt as Lviv and lwow) is not the sort of city that is on everyone’s lips. Once part of Poland until 1939 when it became part of Ukraine, it was a major center of mathematics between 1920 and 1940. Important advances were made in those years by a constellation of mathematicians that included Stefan Banach (see the next post), Hugo Steinhaus, Waclaw Sterpinski, Mark Kac, and Stanislaw Ulam. Adding to Lvov’s storied history is the fact that much of the breakthroughs took place in a whimsical café that became known as the Scottish Café.

The Scottish Café in the city of Lviv (formerly Lvov), Ukraine

Stephan Banach was a regular at the Scottish Café. It was a boisterous place no doubt, but this was precisely what attracted Banach (he couldn’t concentrate if a place were too quiet). It was there in 1932 that Banach saw the publication of his monograph on normed linear spaces, a classic work that contained many fundamental results. It was also at the Scottish Café where he and the other mathematicians gather regularly to talk mathematics late into the night, scribbling (and erasing) their arguments on white marble tables tops.

In a clever move to save their work from obliteration, Banach’s wife bought a notebook for the group to record their problems and solutions. This Scottish Book, as it is now called, was kept in the café, available to any mathematician who visited. A total of 193 problems were recorded in the note book, including many unsolved ones.

The Scottish Café epitomized the passion and energy of Polish mathematicians working in the years between the two world wars. Unfortunately, World War II destroyed Polish culture, including the spirit of Polish mathematics that was so much a part of the Scottish Café. Today, the café building houses a hotel and a restaurant cum bar at the street address of 27 Taras Shevchenko Prospekt.

Part of the Scottish Notebook with notes by Stefan Banach and Stanislaw Ulam.

Leave a Reply