CHAMPAIGN – Wolfgang Haken, 94, of Champaign died Sunday, October 2, 2022 at his home.
Wolfgang was born on June 21, 1928 in Berlin, Germany to Werner Haken and Tilly (Wieneke) Haken. During World War II he was evacuated to Poland for a time, along with many other children from Berlin. At the age of 15, he was mobilized to serve in a German anti-aircraft battery. After the end of the war, Wolfgang first worked as a farm laborer. He passed a GED exam in high school and began his undergraduate studies at the University of Kiel in 1946. Wolfgang received his doctorate. in mathematics at the University of Kiel in 1953, with Professor Karl-Heinrich Weise as thesis supervisor.
Wolfgang met his future wife, Anna-Irmgard von Bredow, at the University of Kiel in 1950, where she was also studying mathematics. The couple married on November 23, 1953 in Flensburg, Germany.
After obtaining his doctorate, Wolfgang was hired by Siemens in Munich, Germany, as an electrical engineer, where he worked on the design of microwave devices until 1962. The first three of his children and those of Irmgard were born during this period. In 1956, Haken suffered a near-fatal accident while mountaineering in the German Alps. He fell over 30 feet and was in a coma for several days.
Wolfgang published an article in Acta Mathematica in 1961 in which he used radically unconventional methods to solve the unraveling problem. Professor Bill Boone of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was impressed with this work and invited him to spend the 1962-63 academic year at UI as a visiting professor. Wolfgang then spent two years as a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. In 1965 he joined the faculty of UI as a full professor. He spent several decades working on the Poincaré conjecture, but was unable to prove it. Three other children of Wolfgang and Irmgard were born in the United States
In 1970, Professor Haken started working on the four color problem; six years later, he and Professor Ken Appel announced their solution in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. Their proof marked the first time that a major mathematical result was achieved using a computer, generating much discussion and controversy in the mathematical community. The UI Mathematics Department put the phrase “Four Colors Are Enough” on its official postmark, which remained in use until the mid-1990s. Professor Haken was a member of the UI Center for Advanced Study from 1990 until his retirement in 1998. He spent the next 24 years working on a new theory of cosmology as an alternative to the Big Bang theory.
Wolfgang, along with his wife and many of his family members, were loyal participants in the “Saturday Hike,” an Urbana-Champaign tradition dating back to 1909 and having a long association with the math department. The trek was led for many years by the late Professor Joseph Doob, who influenced Wolfgang’s interest in cosmology.
Besides all his professional accomplishments, Wolfgang was an accomplished furniture and musical instrument maker. He also enjoyed camping and cycling.
Wolfgang was predeceased by his parents; two brothers (in 1927); his wife, Irmgard (in 2017); and a granddaughter, Sofia Haken.
He is survived by three sons, Armin (Shantha Ramagopal) of San Francisco, Lippold (Beth) of Champaign and Rudolf of Urbana; three daughters, Dorothea (Steven) Blostein of Harrowsmith, Ontario, Agnes (Christian) Debrunner of Conifer, Colorado, and Armgard of Urbana; and 12 grandchildren.
In honor of Wolfgang’s love of the great outdoors, the family is requesting that memorial contributions be made to the Champaign County Forest Preserve District.
Tributes, photos and stories can be shared at forevermissed.com/wolfgang-haken. Condolences may be submitted at morganmemorialhome.com.