Posts Tagged 'History'

The Brief and Tragic Life of Évariste Galois

On the morning of 30 May 1832 a young man stood twenty-five paces from his friend. Both men fired, but only one pistol was loaded. Évariste Galois, a twenty year old mathematical genius, fell to the ground. The cause of Galois’s death is veiled in mystery and speculation. Whether both men loved the same woman or had irreconcilable political differences is unclear. But Galois was abandoned, mortally wounded, on the duelling ground at Gentilly, just south of Paris. By noon the next day he was dead [TM169 or search for “Galois” at].


French postage stamp issued in 1984.

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Stokes’s 200th Birthday Anniversary

Next Tuesday, the 30th of August, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Gabriel Stokes. This extended blog post is to mark that occasion. See also an article in The Irish Times.


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What did the Romans ever do for Maths?

The ancient Romans developed many new techniques for engineering and architecture. The citizens of Rome enjoyed fountains, public baths, central heating, underground sewage systems and public toilets. All right, but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, roads and aqueducts, what did the Romans ever do for maths? [TM166 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Roman aqueduct at Segovia, Spain.

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Cumbersome Calculations in Ancient Rome

Arithmetica-WoodcutTypus Arithmeticae” is a woodcut from the book Margarita Philosophica by Gregor Reisch of Freiburg, published in 1503. In the centre of the figure stands Arithmetica, the muse of mathematics. She is watching a competition between the Roman mathematician Boethius and the great Pythagoras. Boethius is crunching out a calculation using Hindu-Arabic numerals, while Pythagoras uses a counting board or abacus (tabula) and – presumably – a less convenient number system. Arithmetica is looking with favour towards Boethius. He smiles smugly while Pythagoras is looking decidedly glum.

The figure aims to show the superiority of the Hindu-Arabic number system over the older Greek and Roman number systems. Of course, it is completely anachronistic: Pythagoras flourished around 500 BC and Boethius around AD 500, while the Hindu-Arabic numbers did not arrive in Europe until after AD 1200.

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Bernard Bolzano, a Voice Crying in the Wilderness


Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848)

Bernard Bolzano, born in Prague in 1781, was a Bohemian mathematician with Italian origins. Bolzano made several profound advances in mathematics that were not well publicized. As a result, his mathematical work was overlooked, often for many decades after his death. For example, his construction of a function that is continuous on an interval but nowhere differentiable, did not become known. Thus, the credit still goes to Karl Weierstrass, who found such a function about 30 years later. Boyer and Merzbach described Bolzano as “a voice crying in the wilderness,” since so many of his results had to be rediscovered by other workers.

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The Rise and Rise of Women in Mathematics


Sonya Kovalevskya (1850-1891)

The influential collection of biographical essays by Eric Temple Bell, Men of Mathematics, was published in 1937. It covered the lives of about forty mathematicians, from ancient times to the beginning of the twentieth century. The book inspired many boys to become mathematicians. However, it seems unlikely that it inspired many girls: the only woman to get more than a passing mention was Sofia Kovalevskaya, a brilliant Russian mathematician and the first woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics [TM163 or search for “thatsmaths” at].

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Discoveries by Amateurs and Distractions by Cranks

Do amateurs ever solve outstanding mathematical problems? Professional mathematicians are aware that almost every new idea they have about a mathematical problem has already occurred to others. Any really new idea must have some feature that explains why no one has thought of it before  [TM155 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Pierre de Fermat and Srinivasa Ramanujan, two brilliant “amateur” mathematicians.

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