Peter Damerow

Peter Damerow (1939-2011)

The mathematician, philosopher, educational researcher and historian of science Peter Damerow was born on 20 December 1939 in Berlin. On 20 November 2011, surrounded by his family in the University Clinic Benjamin Franklin, he succumbed to cancer. He was an unusually versatile scientific personality, a realist and visionary at the same time, and extraordinarily lavish with his talents, including the talent to make lifelong friendships.

Peter Damerow first trained as a chemical laboratory assistant, a job he practiced for several years, including a stint in Yugoslavia. In night classes he prepared for the academic qualification exams needed to begin his studies of mathematics and philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin. There he became involved in the student movement, rising to prominence as Wolfgang Lefèvre's co-Chairman of the AstA (General Student’s Committee) at the Freie Universität in 1965. He was one of the student representatives on the commission that investigated the death of student activist Benno Ohnesorg. His report was published in Kursbuch, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger’s influential political quarterly.

His interest in philosophy was concentrated particularly on Kant, Hegel and Marx. His formative philosophical experiences included a Hegel colloquium he held for years with Peter Furth, Bernhard Heidtmann and Wolfgang Lefèvre. But even at that time he was also interested in religious studies, as taught by Klaus Heinrich, in the didactics of mathematics, and the cultural and social contexts of science.

In mathematics he was inspired by consistent abstraction. In 1969 Peter Damerow submitted his masters thesis in mathematics on a topic from category theory. In 1977 he was awarded his Dr. math. from Bielefeld University with a thesis entitled Die Reform der Lehrpläne für den Mathematikunterricht der Sekundarstufe I in den Ländern der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1963–1974 (“The Reform of Curricula for Mathematics Instruction in Lower Secondary Education in the States of the Federal Republic of Germany 1963-1974”). His academic instructor was Karl-Peter Grotemeyer, who had founded the second Institute for Mathematics at the Freie Universität in 1967, which opened up new perspectives for university education, such as introducing discussions to the lecture hall and establishing tutorials. It was the age of what we called the “education catastrophe.” Because of his dedication to university education, Grotemeyer was often asked to apply himself above and beyond this project to improving education in mathematics and the natural sciences. He entrusted to Peter Damerow and Christine Keitel-Kreidt the task of drafting an application to the Volkswagen Foundation in order to set up a Central Research Institute for the Didactics of Mathematics in Berlin. The application was successful, but by the time it was approved Grotemeyer had accepted an appointment at the new Bielefeld University. The proposed institute was erected in Bielefeld, but Peter Damerow remained in Berlin.

There were reasons for this. When a new professor was sought for the chair for mathematics at the College of Education in Lower Saxony, Lüneburg campus, in 1975, Peter Damerow was placed at the head of the list, despite the fact that he had never submitted a post-doctoral thesis to qualify himself for a professorship, and although he had yet to defend his doctoral thesis. Besides his outstanding critical writings, especially on the reform of mathematics instruction, on theories of learning, on measuring performance and on equal opportunity, it was his application lecture, entitled Didaktische Probleme der Verwendung des Rechenstabs im Schulunterricht (“Didactic Problems in the Use of the Slide Rule in School Instruction”), which initially provoked astonishment for addressing such an apparently outdated issue, that made academic waves with its new, future-oriented, intelligent and didactically grounded perspective on this less than spectacular topic. Although Peter Damerow was the university’s first choice, in the end he was not appointed, apparently as a consequence of Lower Saxony’s change from an SPD to a CDU government. Nevertheless he did give an introductory lecture in Lüneburg on the study of modern mathematics, which guided the listening students from their everyday experience in downright compelling steps all the way to higher mathematics and its language. Lectures on subject-related topics followed, as did his first lecture on historical issues. The work he performed with his colleagues in Lüneburg, especially that with Diethelm Stoller on the development of a project-oriented mathematics instruction directed to pupils, was carried out in collaboration with comprehensive school teachers in the state of Hesse, as part of the KORAG (Konkretisierung der hessischen Rahmenrichtlinien: “Concretization of the Framework Directives of the State of Hesse”) and the SUGZ (Systematische Umsetzungen gesamtschulspezifischer Zielsetzungen: “Systematic Implementations of Objectives Specific to Comprehensive Schools”) comprehensive school projects. It yielded several extensive collections of instruction materials. Peter Damerow remained in close contact with his circle of friends in Lüneburg his entire life long.

In 1974 Peter Damerow became a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, where he worked on the development of a mathematics curriculum. In designing instruction materials he always remained committed to overcoming social barriers, including those to the propagation of mathematical and scientific knowledge. This emphasis soon directed him toward questions about the historical development of the mathematical sciences. At the Max Planck Institute for Human Development Peter Damerow worked first under Peter M. Röder, and later in the “Development and Socialization” research area headed by Wolfgang Edelstein, where he supervised the “Culture and Cognition” project. He was a representative in the Humanities Section of the Max Planck Society and even a member of the MPG Senate for a time.

For many years Peter Damerow and Wolfgang Lefèvre co-directed the Begriffsentwicklung in den Naturwissenschaften (“Concept Development in the Natural Sciences”) research colloquium, a program held jointly by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Freie Universität Berlin. This colloquium became, not least through Wolfgang Edelstein’s initiative, one of the nuclei of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science founded in 1994, the proponent of a context-related, theoretically oriented historiography of science. Two of its later directors, Jürgen Renn and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, belonged to the colloquium, as did a number of the institute’s staff (among them Jochen Büttner, Jörg Kantel, Hartmut Kern, Ursula Klein, Wolfgang Lefèvre, Peter McLaughlin, Staffan Müller-Wille, Jochen Schneider and Urs Schoepflin). The book co-authored by Peter Damerow and Wolfgang Lefèvre, Rechenstein, Experiment, Sprache. Historische Fallstudien zur Entstehung der exakten Wissenschaften, published in 1981, blazed the trail for some of the later research projects of the institute.

In his article for the book Peter Damerow was concerned particularly with the emergence of counting techniques in early high cultures. This soon became a central emphasis of his work, one which made him known all over the world: the emergence of writing and counting in Mesopotamia. Starting in 1982 Peter Damerow worked closely with the archeologist Hans Nissen and the philologist Robert K. Englund on archaic texts and proto-cuneiform script. Peter Damerow was one of the pioneers of what are called today the “digital humanities.” When he met Robert K. Englund in 1982, who had just begun as a research assistant to Hans Nissen at the time, he noticed a pile of punch cards in his office, which he brought right away to the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. His colleagues from the Near Eastern Archeology department had lost their technical support and could find no way to make any use of the data stored on these punch cards. Peter Damerow, in contrast, had the mathematician’s confidence that there must be a way to solve such a problem. He had access to the computing center of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the necessary programming skills in LISP to process and evaluate the data. This was the beginning of the electronic Uruk project. Even back then Peter Damerow was deploying computer-aided methods of analysis to decode the domain-specific counting systems of early Babylonian mathematics, yielding a resounding success. This work led to his co-founding, along with Robert K. Englund, the “Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative” (CDLI), the world’s most important digital cuneiform library, which contains not only high-resolution reproductions of cuneiform tablets, but also transcriptions, catalog data and tools for electronic publication.

Thus Peter Damerow also became one of the early advocates of the principle of “open access” for research data and publications in the humanities. Up to the very end of his life he remained fascinated by the possibilities of new technologies for innovative research. In the end, with support from Jörg Kantel, he became one of the protagonists of applying three-dimensional scanning technologies in the institutes of the Max Planck Society dedicated to the humanities. The digitalization of the famous Hilprecht collection cuneiform scripts in Jena, which he undertook with Manfred Krebernick, served as his pilot project.

In the framework of the research colloquium mentioned above, which met regularly for years on Monday evenings at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Peter Damerow also pursued a plethora of other history of science projects. Indeed, it is impossible to overestimate his contribution to promoting the history of science, through impulses given in intensive conversations, through his critical reading of texts submitted to him for review, and through the inexhaustible energy he brought to ongoing research projects. In all of this he was guided by the vision that from the history of science a historical, empirically based theory of the development of knowledge could be extracted, a vision discussed today in connection with “historical epistemology.” His own works in this vein include exemplary studies on the development of the number concept, which were not only based a wealth of empirical material, but also elaborated theoretical foundations for a historical epistemology of this kind. As just one example of this, consider the essay “Individual Development and Cultural Evolution of Arithmetical Thinking,” in: S. Strauss (Ed.), Ontogeny, Phylogeny, and Historical Development, of 1988.

This perspective emerged not least due to his insights into the ways culture and cognition are connected, which were the focus of the research area headed by Wolfgang Edelstein at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. These insights involve the connections between individual learning processes, as they were studied in an extended version of Jean Piaget’s genetic epistemology; the development of concepts as it is investigated in epistemology and logic, especially in the work of Hegel; and historical transformation processes like the ones at the core of Marx’s social analysis. Peter Damerow examined these connections and their many facets to develop his own notions of a historical epistemology, which he depicts in detail in his 1995 collection of essays, Abstraction and Representation.

Another of Peter Damerow’s central areas of interest was the history of physical sciences. Way back in the 1980s, the Monday colloquia in Berlin focused not only on the Scientific Revolution of early modernity, but also on the emergence of modern physics. The discussions that took place there resulted in a long-term collaboration among Peter Damerow, Gideon Freudenthal, Peter McLaughlin and Jürgen Renn. The book they co-authored, Exploring the Limits of Pre-Classical Mechanics, appeared in 1992, using concrete case studies to analyze fundamental characteristics of the development of concepts in the natural sciences. Later this approach yielded the research program on the History of Mental Models of Mechanics, pursued at the Max Planck Institute for History of Science, which continues today in the work of Jochen Büttner, Matthias Schemmel and Matteo Valleriani in collaboration with such scholars as Rivka Feldhay. In 1994 Peter Damerow obtained his postdoctoral qualification in Philosophy at the University of Konstanz. There he held a number of research seminars on the development of concepts in the natural sciences– often jointly with Peter McLaughlin and Jürgen Renn.

In the history of physics, too, Peter Damerow was active in promoting the deployment of new information technology in order to open up new perspectives for research. Together with such scholars as Jürgen Renn, Jochen Büttner, Simone Rieger and Martin Warnke, and supported by the Florentine Institute and Museum for the History of Science, Peter Damerow developed the concept of an electronic representation of Galileo’s manuscripts on mechanics to be made freely available on the Internet. Building on this success, further digital research libraries were developed later at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in collaboration with Jochen Büttner, Jörg Kantel, Jürgen Renn, Simone Rieger, Urs Schoepflin and Dirk Wintergrün, among others, especially the broadly designed ECHO (European Cultural Heritage Online) environment, which has been joined by developments like the Europeana and the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek. In 2003, along with Jürgen Renn and Robert Schlögl, he was one of the spiritual fathers of the Max Planck Society’s Berlin Declaration for open access to information on science and cultural heritage. In 2010 Peter Damerow developed the idea of an open access, print-on-demand book series, which he then realized – along with Jürgen Renn, Bernard Schutz and Robert Schlögl, supported by Lindy Divarci, Beatrice Gabriel, Jörg Kantel and Matthias Schemmel, among others – as the “Max Planck Research Library for the History and Development of Knowledge.”

Peter Damerow never considered the history of science to be a specialized discipline, but a research area that was part of his comprehensive interest in the development of human cognition. In this he was thus also a pioneer of an interdisciplinary conception of the history of science. Even his early works on the emergence of script and counting had made clear that the emergence of abstract concepts can be understood only if we take seriously the role of those material representations of thought that are given in concrete historical cases, and the potential for actions and reflection they enable, as for instance the specific role played by cuneiform script tablets in the administration of Babylonia. This insight allowed him to contribute to completely different kinds of fields, for instance to cultural anthropology. Together with Wulf Schiefenhövel, and building on the materials he had collected about the life of the Eipo in Papua New Guinea, Peter Damerow investigated those culture-specific cognitive structures and their representations that allowed the Eipo to achieve astonishing mental performances in areas like house construction, setting traps and spatial orientation. He then applied these research findings to other research projects at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, especially to a project conceived with Jürgen Renn on an epistemic history of architecture, and to a project on the historical development of spatial thinking designed with Matthias Schemmel.

Non-European knowledge traditions played a prominent role in Peter Damerow’s thinking and actions. His close relations with Brazilian scholars go all the way back to the mid-1980s during his work as an educational researcher, when he worked within the framework of the UNESCO, teaming up with Christine Keitel-Kreidt, Paulus Gerdes, Ubiratan d'Ambrosio, und Circe Silva da Silva Dynikoff to promote a contextualized mathematics, which would, in principle, open up to everyone the access to mathematic knowledge. These collaborations resulted in what is still a quite vibrant, regular academic exchange between the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and Brazil, and also a concrete aid project for mathematics education in Brazil. Later, as part of his work at the institute, Peter Damerow helped establish academic relations with China and Spain. In collaboration with Zhang Baichun, Tian Miao, Jürgen Renn and Matthias Schemmel, works on the history of mechanics in China emerged, even including a documentary film, thanks to the support of Richard Röseler. To all of these cooperative projects Peter Damerow contributed his experience in the development of digital research environments, thus providing concrete help to overcome the “digital divide.” Digitalization centers were set up in La Orotava on Tenerife and in Beijing, with assistance from Urs Schoepflin and Simone Rieger, which even today continue to secure our cultural heritage, to make it available for research and to edit it for the broader public.

Over and again, Peter Damerow’s interest in a propagation of scientific knowledge also brought him to participate enthusiastically in exhibition projects. His interest in archaic cuneiform writing led to the Berlin Senate, using funds from the lottery, teaming up with an international museum consortium to bid for the private Erlenmeyer collection of archaic cuneiform tablets when they were auctioned by Christie’s in London in 1988. Since government officials seldom enjoy any experience with auctions, Peter Damerow coordinated strategy with a consultant experienced in such matters, which ultimately led to practically the entire collection being transferred to public institutions, one of them being the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. This acquisition was the foundation for Peter Damerow’s first large-scale exhibition project, which culminated in a widely acclaimed exhibition about the emergence of writing in Charlottenburg Palace in the late 1980s. The accompanying catalog, co-authored with Hans Nissen and Robert K. Englund, is still used as a textbook for Assyriology, especially the English version. Later Peter Damerow teamed up with Jochen Schneider to develop parts of the conception of the Nixdorf Computer Museum in Paderborn, which also featured an exhibit on early Babylonian calculation techniques.

Peter Damerow also played a key role in the major Einstein Exhibition in Berlin in the international Einstein year 2005. His long years of cooperation with Jürgen Renn, Tilman Sauer, Giuseppe Castagnetti, Werner Heinrich, Hubert Gönner, Matthias Schemmel, Michel Janssen, John Stachel and other Einstein scholars built the foundation for this involvement. In the late 1980s Peter Damerow and Jürgen Renn headed the Albert Einstein working group funded by the Berlin Senate at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, which soon became a center for international Einstein scholarship. With his eye for overarching connections, his comprehensive experience with historical issues concerning the development of concepts in the natural sciences, and not least his unerring critical inquiries, Peter Damerow made a weighty contribution to understanding the emergence of the theory of relativity, albeit one that is easily underestimated by specialized scholars. The conception and realization of this major Einstein Exhibition would have been inconceivable without his brilliant ideas and his persistence. The idea of a virtual exhibition, which not only controlled the media in the exhibition and the contents of the exhibition, but preserved them for the long term, placing them at everyone’s disposal in the Internet, goes back to his ideas and works, which were implemented in collaboration with his daughter Julia Damerow and with Malcolm Hyman, who also died too young, and Jürgen Renn.

In Peter Damerow we have lost a visionary teacher, colleague and friend. He challenged us intellectually, radically and without compromise – and was just as unconditionally loyal and helpful in all human endeavors. He left his mark on many a biography and pointed out new paths for many research institutions. For years to come, books and articles will appear that were influenced by his thought and to which he contributed decisive ideas. He had an inconceivable energy and endurance, in both his work and his commitment to people. He was at the same time a brilliant spirit and the most cooperative person imaginable, despite or perhaps because he was indominatable. His straightforwardness sometimes offended, but he never rejected a conciliatory conversation. Those of us who were privileged to be close to him are grateful. Peter Damerow is survived by his wife Ingrid and his two daughters Julia and Sophie. To them we offer our condolences and support.

For Peter Damerow’s friends and colleagues

Jürgen Renn

(with contributions from Robert K. Englund, Christine Keitel-Kreidt, Peter McLaughlin and Diethelm Stoller, among others)