This week, the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of Charles University celebrated 700 years since its foundation. “From today's perspective, the faculty seems young. However, the tradition of education and research in mathematics, physics and astronomy at Charles University has been going on for almost 700 hundred years,” Rector Milena Králíčková told attendees at the Great Hall of the historic Carolinum. The faculty, known affectionately as Matfyz (shorthand for mathematics and physics in Czech – mat and fyz) is something of a national treasure. “Thanks to my mother and brother, who are proud Matfyz graduates, I know that this faculty has always been tolerant and open-minded,” the rector said.
CU’s Vice-Rector for Public Relations Martin Vlach, a Matfyz graduate himself, stressed that he was tempted to say that the name Matfyz was almost as well known in the Czech Republic and Slovakia as Charles University itself. But, he admitted that he wouldn’t go so far officially in his capacity as an objective representative: “What I can say is that Matfyz has many faces. None of them can be described as negative or unkind, whether we try to evaluate the teaching style, collegial cooperation or relations to the wider public within the so-called third role of the university. Like any institution, it has its own specificities and minor flaws. But the prevailing attitude is always one of kindness, open discussion and a friendly environment,” Vlach explained.
In her speech, Rector Milena Králíčková outlined the history of natural sciences at Charles University, which have always been an integral part of the school. Lectures in mathematics, physics and astronomy were held at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, later renamed the Faculty of Arts, which was the gateway to study at three other faculties - Law, Medicine and Theology. The rector also highlighted important scholars who worked in the halls and laboratories of the university - from one of the first rectors, Jan Ondřej, known as Šindel (co-author of the Prague Astronomical Clock), to the mathematician and philosopher Bernard Bolzano, who was a professor of religion at the university in the first half of the 19th century, to Albert Einstein.
Science divided among separate faculties
In 1920, the Faculty of Arts separated from the natural sciences, that in turn were merged largely under one roof at the then newly established Faculty of Science. This was the culmination of the continual development and progress of science in the past century and also proof that the university was a modern institution that could adapt not only in quality but also in structure to the demands of the times.
Milena Králíčková thus highlighted the “maternal relationship” of the Faculty of Science to Matfyz and subsequently also documented her personal connection: “Thanks to my mother and brother, who are proud Matfyz graduates, I know that this faculty has always been tolerant and open-minded. It provided many people with a background at times when they could not work, for example, in the Academy of Sciences for political reasons. The students and staff here were also among the first to welcome the changes in 1989. And not only that. They were also among the first to take advantage of the many opportunities that finally appeared after November. One of the many proofs of this openness and quality is the European Research Council (ERC) grants, of which there are currently eight at the Faculty.”
The keynote speech was presented by the Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of Charles University Mirko Rokyta, who described, among other things, the curious circumstances of the founding of Matfyz in 1952. On 1 September 1952, the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics and the Faculty of Biology (which was re-integrated into the Faculty of Science nine years later) were established by legislative decree from the existing Faculty of Science of Charles University. However, the implementation of the document was not confirmed officially until the fifth of September.
“I do not want to go into a long discussion of whether our faculty existed in limbo between the first and the fifth of September. Whether it was already in existence or not until the fifth of September, only to acknowledge on that day that it had already existed for four days! We at Matfyz, however, saw in these few sentences of the mentioned decree an opportunity to celebrate the foundation of our faculty… more than once! After all, its legal and especially economic separation from the parent Faculty of Science did not take place until a year later. And so, with a little tolerance, we will be able to briefly commemorate the seventieth anniversary of [the faculty’s] founding even next year!” Dean Rokyta stated – to the amusement of the audience in the Great Hall.
He continued by comparing the faculty to a large ocean liner. “Its captain and, after all, the crew should be aware that any turn of the rudder may not have an immediate effect on changing the course of the voyage and that the inertia of the movement of such colossi is something to be taken into account. Even so, the skipper should steer his vessel in a direction that leads to his intended destination. In doing so, he must not jerk the rudder too hastily, lest the ship tilt dangerously. It is not an easy task,” the dean summarised elegantly showing appreciation for three of his predecessors.
On the occasion of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the faculty, Mirko Rokyta proposed to award the merits of the deans emeritus with a commemorative certificate of Charles University. Rector Milena Králíčková evaluated his proposal positively and decided to award the prize to Professors Jan Kratochvíl (pictured below left), Zdeněk Němeček (right) and Pavel Lukáč (not pictured, unable to attend for health reasons).
The last speaker to wish Matfyz a happy birthday was Jiří Zima, Dean of the Faculty of Science of Charles University, who aptly remarked that today these two institutions resembled sisters rather than mother and daughter. “We are already at an age when we both look the same, we live close to each other and our common interest is natural sciences. In addition to these, we also share a common interest in teacher education because we are very aware of the importance of having well-prepared high school students and quality teachers who can get students excited about our fields. Without good high schools, we cannot have quality candidates for our studies,” Zima surmised.
He wished both faculties plus the First Faculty of Medicine good luck at the new, under construction Albertov Campus. “I am looking forward to sharing common state-of-the-art scientific and pedagogical facilities. I am convinced that this cooperation will lead not only to the strengthening of our faculties, but also to the strengthening of Charles University, to the improvement of international competitiveness, to the attraction of top graduates from abroad and to the opening of new scientific directions, which we could not go into without the Albertov Campus," concluded Jiří Zima.
The festive gathering in the Grand Hall of the Carolinum was attended by the management of Charles University and the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, as well as: members of the Scientific Council of Charles University and its Academic Senate, deans of faculties of Charles University and faculties of science and engineering of Czech and Slovak universities, representatives of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, state institutions and a number of other partners.
In addition to the traditional musical accompaniment, the celebration also included a concert by organist Nikola Zasman, also a former student of Matfyz.
On Wednesday 28 September, as part of the celebrations, the remarkable Rotunda of St. Wenceslas located in the Matfyz building ain Prague's Malá Strana opened to the public. In addition to tours, new postage stamps with the motif of the stunning Romanesque tiles was also available for collectors of all stripes.
On the occasion of the celebrations, the Matfyzpress publishing house released a special not for sale publication titled 70/70 with the subtitle Seventy responses to the anniversary of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of Charles University. The book is the answers to a survey in which seventy mathematicians, scientists, teachers, students and graduates reflect independently and with a purely personal perspective on five identical questions. In this way, they compose a picture of the current faculty, supplemented by memories of its past and wishes for the future.