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Topic: They Didn't Eat Beans and Other Stories
Replies: 1   Last Post: Jun 25, 1993 1:53 PM

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Evelyn Sander

Posts: 187
Registered: 12/3/04
They Didn't Eat Beans and Other Stories
Posted: Jun 20, 1993 1:45 PM
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I have been asked to write something which addresses the issue that
there are no mathematicians who are household words. This means that
there are no famous role models for kids to emulate. At first I was
planning to do a series of detailed several page descriptions of the
lives of a few specific mathematicians. However, after considering
what would have intrigued me as a kid, this will only contain a some
of the exciting parts about some great mathematicians and historical

Many sources try to make mathematicians and mathematics sound far
removed from the world, but this is not at all the case. There are
politically active mathematicians, mathematicians who steal others'
ideas, and even murder over theorems. There is passion and excitement,
as in any history when the people involved really care about it. I am
sorry for the lack of women in this description, but there really are
not yet that many famous women mathematicians. Emmy Noether, Sophie
Germain, and Sonya Kovalevsky are the only three that I can think of

Born in around 532 B.C., the ancient Greek Pythagorus was the founder
of a school of mathematicians and is credited with the discovery of
the relationship between the lengths of the sides of a right triangle
(although it is not clear Pythagorus actually deserves credit for this
theorem). Pythagorus was also important politically; he founded the
religious sect of the Pythagoreans, who became a major political force
in Southern Italy, even gaining the rule of some of the cities. The
major beliefs of the Pythagoreans included the transmigration of
souls, that everything depended on whole numbers, and the sinfulness
of eating beans. Other laws included not touching a white cock and not
looking in a mirror beside a light.[Russell, Bertrand, "A History of
Western Philosophy," Simon and Schuster, NY, 1945.] So great was the
importance of whole numbers that the discovery that the square root of
two is irrational remained a religious secret. It is said that when
the Pythagorean Hippasus disclosed the secret, other members of the
sect drowned him in the sea.[Eves, Howard, "An Introduction to the
History of Mathematics," third edition, Holt, Rinehart and Winston,
NY, 1964.]

In the sixteenth century, mathematicians wanted to find a formulas
like the quadratic formula for factoring third and fourth degree
polynomials. The answers were first published by Cardan (1501-76),
though it was not his work. He found out the secret of how to solve
the cubic from Tartaglia (1500-57), who probably also did not discover
it. Cardan's publication came after he promised Tartaglia that he
would never reveal the secret. According to Boyer, it is probably
Scipione del Ferro (1465-1526) who actually discovered the formula. He
kept it a secret, revealing it to one student before he died.[Boyer,
Carl, "A History of Mathematics," John Wiley & Sons, NY, 1968.]

After the discovery of formulas to factor third and fourth degree
polynomials, it is natural to wonder about five and beyond. In fact,
it is impossible to write down a general formula to factor polynomials
of any degree greater than four. It was Galois (1812-1832) who proved
this result in the course of developing a branch of mathematics now
called Galois theory. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances,
Galois repeatedly was denied entrance to the Ecole Polytechnique, the
most pretigious university in France, as well as never getting his
work recognized in his lifetime, although two papers were published in
1830. This same year, Galois became a revolutionary, fighting for
France to be a republic. Through this political activity (or perhaps
over a woman), he was challenged to a duel. It was in this dual that
he died at the age of twenty. According to legend, knowing that he
would die, he wrote down many of his ideas in a letter to a friend the
night before the duel. The letter and other partial manuscripts were
finally published in the Journal de Mathematiques in 1846.[Boyer]

I will not write much about Newton (1642-1727), but there are a few
interesting things to mention. Newton was the first to discover
calculus, but because he did not publish for more than ten years,
Leibniz independently arrived at the same discovery and published
first. The result was a terrible fight between the two, making the
last part of Newton's life unhappy. In 1696, he was appointed Warden
of the Mint and promoted to Master of the Mint in 1699.[Eves] He took
the job seriously, saving the country money by introducing the idea of
coin milling. This meant that people were no longer able to clip
silver off the edges of the coins.[Barrow, John, "The World Within the
World," Oxford University Press, 1990.]

Credited with the invention of modern analysis, Euler (1707-83) is
probably the most prolific mathematician ever. Spending the last
seventeen years of his life blind did not slow down his productivity.
He just dictated to his children. Aside from the mathematical content
of his work, Euler standardized mathematical notation. He is
responsible for the use of the letter e for exponential functions, the
capital sigma for summation, i for the square root of minus one, and
even for the use of the letter pi for the ratio of the circumference
to diameter of the circle! [Boyer] Thus it is that we can write one of
the most fundamental equations of modern mathematics, voted the most
beautiful theorem by readers of the Mathematical Intelligencer.[Wells,
David, "Are These the Most Beautiful?" Mathematical Intelligencer, Vol
12, No 3, 1990.] Namely:


That mathematicians participate in the world is not something of the
past. The contemporary mathematician Steve Smale, who is very
important in many areas including Dynamical Systems, had to appear in
front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and was active in
the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. He caused quite a bit of
contraversy when he spoke against the U.S. and Soviet involvement in
Vietnam in Moscow, 1966. The University of California denied him
summer support; he then has his NSF proposal returned for political
reasons.[Smale, Steve, "The Story of the Higher Dimensional Poincare
Conjecture (What Actually Happened on the Beaches of Rio),"
Mathematical Intelligencer, Vol 12, No 2, 1990.]

Perhaps the most telling comment regarding the importance of
mathematics comes from the algebraic geometer Alexandre Grothendieck,
when he was teaching math in Vietnam in 1967. He says: "In general, I
can attest that both the political leaders and the senior academic
people are convinced that scientific research--including theoretical
research having no immediate practical applications--is not a luxury,
and that it it necessary ... starting now, without waiting for a
better future."[Koblitz, Neal, "Recollections of Mathematics in a
Country Under Siege," Mathematical Intelligencer, Vol 12, No 3, 1990.]

I would like to thank Scott Carlson for sharing his knowledge and
books with me for this article.

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