Men of Mathematics

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Men of Mathematics by E.T. Bell

Men of Mathematics is a book on the history of mathematics written in 1937 by the mathematician E.T. Bell. After a brief chapter on three ancient mathematicians, the remainder of the book is devoted to the lives of about forty mathematicians who worked in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The emphasis is on mainstream mathematics following on from the work.

To keep the interest of readers, the book typically focuses on unusual or dramatic aspects of its subjects' lives. Men of Mathematics has inspired many young people, including the young John Forbes Nash Jr. and Freeman Dyson, to become mathematicians. It is not intended as a rigorous history, includes many anecdotal accounts, and presents a somewhat idealised picture of mathematicians, their personalities, research and controversies.

In reviewing the faculty that served with Harry Bateman at Caltech, Clifford Truesdell wrote:

...[Bell] was admired for his science fiction and his Men of Mathematics. I was shocked when, just a few years later, Walter Pitts told me the latter was nothing but a string of Hollywood scenarios; my own subsequent study of the sources has shown me that Pitts was right, and I now find the contents of that still popular book to be little more than rehashes enlivened by nasty gossip and banal or indecent fancy..[1]

An impression of the book was given by Rebecca Goldstein in her novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Describing a character Cass Seltzer, she wrote on page 105:

Right now he was reading E. T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics, which was the best yet, even though it had real mathematics in to slow him down. Some of these people sounded as if they had to be changelings, non-human visitors from some other sphere, with powers so prodigious they burst the boundaries of developmental psychology, lisping out profundities while other children were playing with their toes.[2]

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Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Truesdell, C. (1984). An idiot's fugitive essays on science: methods, criticism, training, circumstances. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. ISBN 0-387-90703-3.  "Genius and the establishment at a polite standstill in the modern university: Bateman", pages 423 to 424
  2. ^ Quoted in the College Mathematics Journal 43(3):231 (May 2010)

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