R. I. P. Wolfgang Rindler (1924-2019)

A recent comment on this blog drew my attention to the sad news of the death, at the age of 94, of Wolfgang Rindler. He passed away almost a month ago, in fact, but I have only just heard. My condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

Wolfgang Rindler was a physicist who specialized in relativity theory and especially its implications for cosmology. Among other things he is attributed with the first use of the phrase `Event Horizon‘ as well as elucidating the nature of horizons in general relativity, both in the context of black holes and in cosmology. I never met him personally but to me, and I think to many other people, Wolfgang Rindler will be familiar through his textbooks on relativity theory. I have two in my collection:

I bought the one on the right on recommendation when I was an undergraduate over thirty years ago and the other (shorter) one I acquired second-hand some years later. Both are still very widely used in undergraduate courses.
I found the first one then (as I do now) rather idiosyncratic in approach and notation but full of deep insights and extremely effective from a pedagogical point of view. I still recommend it to students, to balance more conventional modern texts which tend to be far more conventional. It’s no easy thing to write textbooks and Wolfgang Rindler deserves high praise for having devoted so much of his time, and considerable talent, into writing ones whose impact has been so widespread and lasted so long.

Rest in peace, Wolfgang Rindler (18th May 1924 – 8th February 2019).

6 Responses to “R. I. P. Wolfgang Rindler (1924-2019)”

  1. Wolfgang had long been a hero of mine. His paper on cosmological horizons in MNRAS is one of the most important papers in relativistic cosmology. He fled Austria as a youth with the Kindertransport. He studied in Liverpool and London, taught at Cornell, and came to Texas in the early 1960s, where the first Texas Symposium on relativistic astrophysics was held (the next one will be in Portsmouth). Quasars were the rage at the time, so Roy Kerr’s presentation of his metric went largely unnoticed. In 2013 there was a special 50th-anniversary Texas Symposium. The emphasis of the various Texas Symposia are different, though of course there is a core set of themes. Obviously, the 2013 one had a historical bent. Many of the greats of the golden age of relativity were there, many of whom were also at the first Texas Symposium 50 years before. Fortunately, a panel discussion featuring these senior scientists has been preserved for posterity. Alas, Wolfgang is not the only one now dead. Sit down in your comfy chair, get some popcorn and drinks, and watch the whole movie, featuring Wolfgang, of course. (At 1:47:10, the camera zooms out from Wolfgang to put my balding head at bottom centre. The big chap in front of me is Joe Taylor, too young to be on the panel.)

    Although we had exchanged some emails before, I first met him personally at this 2013 symposium, and had breakfast with him a few times. (Ironically, I spent much of my youth within an hour’s drive of the University of Texas at Dallas, where Wolfgang spent his last 55 years.) Something I mentioned (no spoilers!) caused him to tell a story featuring Ted Newman. In the panel discussion, Ted told the same story (one of his many enjoyable stories), which got the most laughs of a very enjoyable afternoon. (After the discussion, there was a public talk by Rocky Kolb. Wolfgang was 88 at the time, but drove Rocky to the venue.)

    Wolfgang lived to a ripe old age, and remained scientifically active well past retirement age.

  2. John Peacock Says:

    Very sad news. I met him only once, in 2008, although I’d known his books for many years. I had the honour to have him round for dinner, and it was an evening that made a deep impression on me. I’ll never forget his descriptions of fleeing Nazi Vienna on the kindertransport, and in particular his reply when I asked him if he’d even been able to bear to return to Vienna: “Yes, I was glad to go back: the Nazis took so many things from me, but I had such a happy childhood in Vienna and I wasn’t going to let them take that too”. He seemed utterly without bitterness or regret, and his positive attitude to life was an inspiration.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      The one time I met him, we spoke English. I remembered Bernard Pagel telling me that he (Pagel) preferred English (Pagel fled at a much earlier age), though I didn’t ask why, so I had that in mind. Some people don’t want to be reminded of the past. Others can separate language from culture, culture now from culture then, and so on. (As my history teacher used to say, just an observation, not a judgement; in such cases, it’s purely the other person’s call.) Einstein famously never went back, though he had no objection to having a school in Germany named after him (in fact, there are many, including one 5 minutes from where I live), stating that the children were obviously not the people he fled from. (In contrast to most others mentioned in this comment, Einstein never really became integrated in his new home, and continued to speak German when possible.) Schrödinger did go back to Austria, but died soon afterwards. Carl Djerassi (a really interesting character) accepted Austrian citizenship in 2004, exceptionally allowed to retain his US citizenship. Another person of that generation who returned (though not permanently) is Eric Candel, though he used his Nobel clout to suggest some improvements before doing so. In more modern times, there are many people of Jewish descent in the UK who are taking advantage of the fast track to German citizenship offered to those who had to flee and their descendants—because of Brexit.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      “Very sad news.”

      Indeed, but not completely unexpected, given his age. While still very fit in 2013 (see the video above), two years later, so I was told then, he was substantially less so.

      Just in the last few days I’ve read many obituaries: Karl Lagerfeld, former German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel, various singers, actors, etc. Those of us still alive will experience more and more of this, of course, not just people we know of, but people we know. Vita brevis, ars longa.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      “I’d known his books”

      It looks like you had fun reviewing his book with Penrose on spinors. Not many authors manage to slip a mention of Darwin’s favourite insects into a review of a book on mathematical physics, reminding me that collective nouns such as “a convention of malformed beetles” are one of the most interesting (together with Cockney rhyming slang) and best features of the English language.

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