History of the department

The history of the department of mathematics is closely connected with the history of the Faculty of nuclear sciences and physical engineering (FNSPE). Therefore, this story begins with the origin of the faculty itself. The faculty was established in 1955 as a part of Charles University (UK) on account of a rapidly developing nuclear program. This made the faculty very attractive – the faculty admitted only 1 out of every 6 students who applied – and therefore could develop a highly demanding program which earned the faculty a reputation of a strict institution that trained professionals in the field of nuclear science and energetics.

The department of mathematics (KM) did not yet exist at that time and the lectures in mathematics were delivered by a group of mathematicians led by Karel Drbohlav. Another three significant members of this team were Karel Cháňa, Václav Nejedlý and Jana Vondráčková who were students of the last year of mathematical statistics at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of Charles University (graduated in 1956). It is interesting that two of them – V. Nejedlý and J. Vondráčková – remained at the faculty until their retirement, that is for a period of 50 years! Another employee, who dedicated his life to KM, was Tibor Záhorský who joined the department in 1958 and who also stayed there until the days of his retirement.

The lectures were given at various places – J. Vondráčková recalls a lecture that took place in a forensic medicine lecture hall of the Faculty of Medicine in Albertov, where the room was decorated with human embryos of all evolutionary stages preserved in formaldehyde. At first, KM had no permanent residence which was not really needed at that time, since the department housed no more than six employees altogether. In the first term of the academic year 1955 – 1956 lectures in basic mathematics were given by Svatava Kubálková at MFF UK. In the following academic year (1956 – 1957) mathematics was taught by an extern Alois Apfelbeck, who, as we will see later, left a long-lasting imprint on the style of teaching.

The three assistants had their office on 7 Břehová street, where nowadays the dean's office is located. It is safe to say that in 1958 KM already officially existed and was led by František Nožička. The department's offices were moved during the academic year 1958 – 1959 to 10 Křemencova street (across the street from a brewery U Fleků) and later back to Břehová street under the supervision of Alfons Bašta, this time to a location of today's department of nuclear chemistry, where they remained until 1963. The first FNSPE graduate who became a KM member was Emil Navrátil in 1960 who, despite his early demise (in 1670), was a significant figure of KM. For example, he wrote the first set of exercises for the calculus course, which was later used by countless other authors. In 1961 three more FNSPE alumni became a part of the team with Vladimír Kníchal in charge. These were Jiří Blank, Miloslav Havlíček (former head of the department) and Eva Mackerlová (now Stejskalová).

Before finally settling down on 13 Trojanova street, KM has undergone several more relocations: 7 Myslíkova street, the Hollar palace on 6 Smetanovo nábřeží, 5 Husova street. Meanwhile, there was a Mathematics lab on 3 Horská street led by Václav Pleskot, where numerical mathematics and informatics were studied and which provided lectures on these topics. The lab possessed (together with the Academy of Sciences) one of the very few computers that could be found in Prague at that time – the electronic computer URAL 2 – to run a program one had to book the computational time in advance and then wait for the results. It was also possible to debug the program from the control panel. In 1960 Emil Humhal joined the lab as an engineer-assistant.

In 1964 Alois Apfelbeck became the head of the department and remained in that position for a long period of 19 years. He was the author of the basic mathematics course, which with minor changes prevailed until the present day. A. Apfelbeck demanded of his students an excellent knowledge of the studied subject and at the same time expected similar approach from his colleagues. This way he was able to transform a mathematical course of ordinary technical institute into a highly demanding program comparable to a university course at MFF UK while simultaneously preserving its practicality. Even though the FNSPE leadership pressured A. Apfelbeck , he stood his ground and protected the high level of education. He among others can take credit for the fact that FNSPE became famous for its high standard of education and extensive and highly-demanding courses. And that remained unchanged till the present day.

Alois Apfelbeck was undoubtedly a remarkable personality, which is apparent from countless stories that are still afloat. Let us at least recall the following two:

  • Once Apfelbeck examined and gave a grade to the lucky student. After a while, he abruptly opened the door to call the next student in and accidentally hit somebody with it. The stunned student was picking himself up from the floor, when Apfelbeck asked him what he was doing on the ground. It turned out that the student, having made a bet, had to kiss the ground since he passed the exam !
  • Apfelbeck was forced by the communist regime to attend the VUML (evening university of Marxism-Leninism). The examiner once told him: "I am almost ashamed to be examining you since you are older than me." Apfelbeck replied: "Why would you be ashamed now when you were not ashamed to give the lectures."

The difficulty of the course at that time could be illustrated by the fact that students had to spend around 30 hours at the university per week in addition to one day of military preparation for boys or homeland security for girls. Apart from the technical subjects there was an obligatory course of Marxism throughout the whole course. In connection with that, we could mention that there were almost no communists at the department. In 1966, when KM resided in the Hollar palace, Jiří Pytlíček joined the department and later became a legend in giving lectures in linear algebra. (These exact words were used on a memorial plaque dedicated to him which can be found near the entrance to the offices of KM on Trojanova street). It is however necessary to mention that the concept of the linear algebra course was designed by Miloslav Havlíček who initially also gave the lectures. The difficulty of this course was comparable to the Apfelbeck's course of mathematical analysis. In 1969 Jan Mareš (former head of the department) entered the team. Some of the offices were at that time located in Myslíkova street. Finally in 1971, the whole department moved to Husova street and stayed there until 1988 when it was moved to its present residence in Trojanova street.

After the inspections, which took place during the normalization process in 1970, the original Mathematics lab was shut down as a separate workplace. Some of the staff were fired, some left. The rest became a numerical division of KM under the lead of Lubomír Ohera (later Tibor Záhorský). The only teacher, who stayed, Emil Humhal transferred in 1973 to KM to give lectures on numerical methods. In the same year, two excellent MFF UK graduates, Jan Reiterman and Vojtěch Rödl, joined the department. It was them who established the scientific tradition on KM. Today, the department of mathematics at FNSPE is probably one the scientifically most active groups under the Czech Technical University in Prague.

In connection with these inspections, there is a humorous story that is worth mentioning. In 1969 the department of Marxism was also dismissed. Its employees, who were not to be harmed, were consequently sent to other departments. That is, KM received one too (his name is unimportant). This graduate of a communist school in Moscow, a very agile speaker, decided to prove his usefulness by constructing a trisection of an angle using marxistic dialectic rules. For that purpose, he organised a seminar full of applications of Marxism for the whole faculty. It is interesting that the construction he designed was so accurate that for common examples it gave the right result. That is why the members of KM were not immediately able to construct a counterexample (the counterexample was found the next day by B. Lonek who simultaneously showed that the error was always very small). Apart from the members of KM, many communist officials attended the seminar, one of whom (the former head of the department of Marxism) remarked to another one (the former chairman of the communist organisation at the faculty) that the construction might be questionable but that it is very interesting how wide applications of the marxistic dialectic rules there are.

An important milestone in the history of the department was the academic year 1973 – 1974 when the Mathematical Engineering course was introduced, which at that time trained students in a discipline we now call Mathematical Modelling (informatics came later on). Until that time the department did not, in fact, train its own students (with exceptions of students with an individual study plan e.g. Belomír Lonek or Leopold Vrána). Now the department had their own students and especially in the first years these were the best students at the faculty. Consequently, the standards of KM could easily match the most prestigious course, which, at that time, was the Physical Electronics.

Mostly in the early years of the course, 1976 – 1983, the percentage of students graduating with honors was higher than 65% – in spite of the fact that even the performance in previous school years was taken into account. This percentage however declined over time since the number of admitted students substantially increased. The fact that the department started to hire some of their own graduates only further shows the quality of the course and its students. If we examine the current list of members of the department, we can find out that 17 out of 25 employees are graduates of this course. Some of the readers might find it interesting that out of the first four graduates from 1976, Miroslav Virius is the head of the department of software engineering of FNSPE and Ľubomír Harach is the former minister of education in Slovakia. These graduates also hold the record for attendance. Since then, no other group of students of Mathematical Engineering had such meticulous attendance. During the breaks they used to play a game of marriage, which is best played in four.

This text is based on memories of Emil Humhal, Jana Vondráčková, Miloslav Havlíček, Jan Mareš and others.

Translated from Czech by Richard Finger

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Czech Technical Univeristy in Prague | Faculty of Nuclear Sciences and Physical Engineering | Department of Mathematics