Zirnbauer studied at the Technical University of Munich and Oxford University, where he earned his PhD. In 1987 he was appointed at age 29 to Cologne. In 1996 he acquired his professorial chair. Among his foreign research sabbaticals, he visited the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. His research specialty is the mathematical physics of mesoscopic systems.
In 2009 for his research he received the prestigious Leibniz prize from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, which granted him over a period of seven years 2.5 million EUR. In 2012 he was awarded the Max Planck medal.
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