Deep in the Black Forest: A World-Class Research Institute

The Oberwolfach Research Institute for Mathematics is one of the world's most important meeting places for mathematicians and has been funded by the Volkswagen Foundation for decades. The institution is now celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Metal model of the Boy surface in front of the Oberwolfach Research Institute for Mathematics (MFO) (Photo: MFO)

Only 2,700 inhabitants live in Oberwolfach, which is situated in a valley of the northwestern Black Forest and no easy matter to access by road. Nevertheless, every year almost as many guests find their way here as all the town's inhabitants: 2,500 visitors, 70 percent of them from abroad, make the pilgrimage to the Oberwolfach Research Institute for Mathematics (MFO).

Anyone taking the trouble to attempt the difficult journey will of course expect to be rewarded accordingly. And indeed, the MFO presents a unique opportunity to meet and exchange ideas in person with leading international mathematics researchers. The conference program covers the entire spectrum of this discipline, including its applications in the sciences and technology.

Admission by personal invitation only

Sitzungsraum Oberwolfach
Invitation to (mathematical) discussions: Sitting area at the Oberwolfach Research Institute for Mathematics (MFO) (Photo: MFO)

The director of the institute – since 2013 the Tübingen mathematician Gerhard Huisken – personally invites the leading minds from all over the world. It is his job to ensure that the weekly changing workshops cover the widest range of topics and enable them to exchange ideas on the latest developments in mathematics.

The MFO accommodates guest scientists and small research groups, offers advanced training seminars for young master and doctoral students as well as a postdoctoral program ("Oberwolfach Leibniz Fellows").

Bibliothek Oberwolfach
Considered one of the best mathematical libraries in the world: the library at the Oberwolfach Research Institute for Mathematics (MFO) (Photo: MFO)

The Volkswagen Foundation supported the MFO early on: In 1963, it financed the building of a guest house; in 1987 an extension was added, and the Foundation – together with the Klaus Tschira Foundation – participated in the construction of the Institute's library, which is still today regarded as a world leader.

Thanks to these substantial grants, the Volkswagen Foundation is regarded as the most important pioneer for the success of the institute, which in 2005 was affiliated to the Leibniz Association.

"A natural for third-party donors."

In a welcoming address, Wilhelm Krull, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, called the MFO "a natural for third-party donors". It pursues goals similar to those of the Foundation, namely "to take up new approaches and develop and test theories, avenues of research, methods and also new links between the subjects". The close ties between the MFO and the Foundation continue to this day, with grants primarily for international conferences, but also for the "Research in Pairs" program, which enables very small research groups to spend longer stays in Oberwolfach. 

Founded in the aftermath of war

Glasfassade am Mathematischen Forschungsinstitut
Peaceful framework for mathematical research: the Oberwolfach Research Institute for Mathematics in the northwestern Black Forest (Photo: MFO)

The Oberwolfach Research Institute for Mathematics was founded on Sept. 1, 1944, by Wilhelm Süß, mathematician and then Rector of the University of Freiburg. He was inspired by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. Süß set an important milestone for the resumption of the long tradition of outstanding research on mathematics in Germany, which had come to an abrupt end with the exodus  under the National Socialists.

Süß led the MFO  for 14 years and during this time laid the corner stone for one of the world's most important facilities of its kind – in the complete seclusion of the Wolfach Valley in the northwestern Black Forest.

Jens Rehländer