Mihailo Petrovic Alas was an inventor and influential Serbian mathematician. His main contributions had been for providing differential equations as well as several works on phenomenology. He had also been a well-respected professor at the Belgrade University and apart from his endeavors in Mathematics, he was also a musician, publicist, businessman, writer, fisherman, and an academic. Aside from his most significant contributions for phenomenology and differential equations, he also helped in the development of the very first prototypes for the analog computer.
Early Life and Academic Background
He was the firstborn of his father Nikodim who was a theology professor and his mother Milica. Mihailo was born on the 6th of May in 1868 in Belgrade. After finishing his studies in the First Belgrade Gymnasium in the year 1885, he enrolled for courses in the Faculty of Philosophy specifically for the natural science-mathematical section. When he finished his mathematical studies in Serbia come 1889, other mathematicians such as Dr. Dimitrije Danić, Dr. Dimitrije Nešić, Bogdan Gavrilović were already making their own names. Because of this he strived to improve his knowledge and in 1889, Mihailo himself decided to pursue further studies abroad where he also prepared for an exam to get accepted to the École Normale Supérieure.
In 1891, he got his degree from the Sorborne University where he finished his courses in mathematical sciences. He was continuously improving his education by preparing his dissertation for his doctoral degree which he got in 1894. His doctorate was about differential equations, and he received the title “Docteur des sciences mathematiques” or doctor of mathematical sciences.
Having acquired the background, as well as some training for more intensive work, he became one of the professors of mathematics at what is now known as the University of Belgrade. Back in those days, he was the greatest mind when it came to differential equations, having lectures on mathematics and equations up to his retirement in 1938. He was only 31 when he became one of the members of the Serbian Royal Academy, and on top of that, he was also an associate member of the Zagreb’s Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts.
Mihailo was able to publish many of his journals, scientific works, and books, as well as writings on his inventions during his lifetime. He even made notes of his sea expeditions. Because of his academic work and outstanding publications, he was recognized by many different academies and societies by being handed acknowledgements and awards. When Jovan Cvijić, president of the Royal Serbian Academy, died in 1927, a lot of the members were suggesting that Mihailo should be president. The higher authorities however did not accept the proposal, the reason being that he was a very close friend of prince Đorđe P. Karađorđević who was the king’s brother who happened to be house arrested in 1925.
A few years later in 1931, members of the academy again proposed for Mihailo to be elected as their president, but this was still dismissed and not accepted by the higher authorities. Bogdan Gavrilović, who was a fellow professor and mathematician, was the one who got nominated as the president instead.
Because of his contributions and help in different academic endeavors, he became one of the honorary doctors of the University of Belgrade in 1939 and that same year he received the first class order of Saint Sava. Given his expertise and know-how in the field of mathematics, he founded the Belgrade School of Mathematics. As the years passed, this very school was responsible for producing a number of good mathematicians who continued his works where he left them. During the Second World War, all of the doctoral dissertations which were held in the University of Belgrade were held under his supervision.
He was a man of many trades, and he didn’t stop at making academic contributions. He was also involved in services for his country. He was one of the participants in the Balkan Wars and during the First World War, he was one of the officers. After that time, he was serving as a reserve officer despite having another profession. Being a brilliant mathematician, he practiced cryptography as well and the cipher systems he developed where those used by the Yugoslav army up until the Second World War.
During the Second World War, he was again called to service, and this time, he was captured by the Germans. Fortunately, he was later on released because of an illness. It was in 1943 when he died at the age of 75 in his own home in Belgrade.
His nickname “Alas” was drawn from his love of fishery which actually means “river fisherman.” He wasn’t just an aficionado but he became an expert in this craft as well. He was a fisherman’s apprentice in 1882, and in 1895 he even took the exam to be a master fisherman. So much was his love for fishery that he even participated in some legislative talks about the fishery convention they were to have with Romania at one time, and he also had a hand in the discussion for fishery protection with Austra-Hungaria representatives about fishery protection for places such as the Drina, Danube, and the Sava rivers.
Apart from his interests in academics and fishery, he was also a musician who played the violin and he even founded the musical society which was called Suz. He also came up with the hidrointegrator and even won in the World Exposition in Paris in 1900 where he got a gold medal. He was also a passionate traveler and his wanderlust took him to both the South and North poles.
He had gained international recognition by being a member of societies in Paris, Prague, France, and Berlin, and as a member of different academies in Bucharest, Warsaw, and Krakow. He was a member of SANU, the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, and the Yugoslav academy where he was able to help hone the young minds of aspiring mathematicians and scholars of his age.