Eric Temple Bell

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For other people named Eric Bell, see Eric Bell (disambiguation).
Eric Temple Bell
John Taine WS3112.jpg
Bell as pictured in Wonder Stories in 1931
Born (1883-02-07)February 7, 1883
Peterhead, Scotland, UK
Died December 21, 1960(1960-12-21) (aged 77)
Watsonville, California, USA
Residence United States
Nationality British
Fields Mathematics
Institutions University of Washington
California Institute of Technology
Alma mater Stanford University
Columbia University (Ph.D.)
Doctoral advisor Frank Nelson Cole
Cassius Keyser
Doctoral students Howard Percy Robertson
Morgan Ward
Zhou Peiyuan
Known for Number theory
Bell series
Bell polynomials
Bell numbers
Bell triangle
Ordered Bell numbers
Notable awards Bôcher Memorial Prize (1924)

Eric Temple Bell (February 7, 1883 – December 21, 1960) was a Scottish-born mathematician and science fiction writer who lived in the United States for most of his life. He published non-fiction using his given name and fiction as John Taine.


Bell was born in Peterhead, Aberdeen, Scotland, but his father, a factor, relocated to San Jose, California in 1884, when he was fifteen months old. The family returned to Bedford, England after his father's death, on January 4, 1896. Bell returned to the United States by way of Montreal in 1902.

Bell was educated at Bedford Modern School, where his teacher Edward Mann Langley inspired him to continue the study of mathematics, Stanford University, the University of Washington, and Columbia University[1] (where he was a student of Cassius Jackson Keyser). He was part of the faculty first at the University of Washington and later at the California Institute of Technology.

He researched number theory; see in particular Bell series. He attempted—not altogether successfully—to make the traditional umbral calculus (understood at that time to be the same thing as the "symbolic method" of Blissard) logically rigorous. He also did much work using generating functions, treated as formal power series, without concern for convergence. He is the eponym of the Bell polynomials and the Bell numbers of combinatorics (but not the "bell curve").[2] In 1924 he was awarded the Bôcher Memorial Prize for his work in mathematical analysis. He died in 1960 in Watsonville, California.

Fiction and poetry[edit]

During the early 1920s, Bell wrote several long poems. He also wrote several science fiction novels, which independently invented some of the earliest devices and ideas of science fiction.[3] Only the novel The Purple Sapphire was published at the time, using the pseudonym John Taine; this was before Hugo Gernsback and the genre publication of science fiction. His novels were published later, both in book form and serialized in magazines. Basil Davenport, writing in The New York Times, described Taine as "one of the first real scientists to write science-fiction [who] did much to bring it out of the interplanetary cops-and-robbers stage." But he concluded that "[Taine] is sadly lacking as a novelist, in style and especially in characterization."[4]

Writing about mathematics[edit]

Bell wrote a book of biographical essays titled Men of Mathematics, (one chapter of which was the first popular account of the 19th century woman mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya) and which is still in print. The book inspired notable mathematicians including Julia Robinson,[5] John Forbes Nash, Jr.,[6] and Andrew Wiles[7] to begin a career as a mathematician. However, historians of mathematics have disputed the accuracy of much of Bell's history. In fact, Bell does not distinguish carefully between anecdote and history. He has been much criticized for romanticizing Évariste Galois. For example: "[E. T.] Bell's account [of Galois's life], by far the most famous, is also the most fictitious."[8]

His treatment of Georg Cantor, which reduced Cantor's relationships with his father and with Leopold Kronecker to stereotypes, has been criticized even more severely.[9]

Bell's later book, Development of Mathematics has been less famous, but Constance Reid finds it has fewer weaknesses.[page needed] The Last Problem is a hybrid, between a social history and a history of mathematics.


Non-fiction books[edit]

Scholarly papers[edit]


The Purple Sapphire was reprinted in the August 1948 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries


  • The Singer (1916)


  • "Obvious is the most dangerous word in mathematics."[10]

"Time makes fools of us all "


  1. ^ Goodstein, Judith R.; Babbitt, Donald (June–July 2013), "E.T. Bell and Mathematics at Caltech between the Wars" (PDF), Notices of the American Mathematical Society 60 (6): 688, doi:10.1090/noti1009, retrieved 30 June 2013 
  2. ^ The "bell curve" is so called because of its similarity in shape to the cross-section of a bell.
  3. ^ Reid (1993),[page needed], "Most fiction writers are, after all, primarily fiction writers", he [Glenn Hughes, professor of English literature] wrote of Bell. "Some of them may show a trifle more finesse in plot handling or characterization, but none of them surpasses Bell in grandness of conception or accuracy of detail. One has always the uncanny feeling that [he] is dealing in probabilities, and that many of his most extravagant dreams are but pre-visions of nightmares in store for the human race.
  4. ^ Davenport, Basil (October 19, 1952), "Spacemen's Realm", The New York Times.
  5. ^ Reid, Constance (1996), Julia, a Life in Mathematics, MAA spectrum, Cambridge University Press, p. 25, ISBN 9780883855201, The only idea of real mathematics that I had came from Men of Mathematics. In it I got my first glimpse of a mathematician per se. I cannot overemphasize the importance of such books about mathematics in the intellectual life of a student like myself completely out of contact with research mathematicians. 
  6. ^ Kuhn, Harold W.; Nasar, Sylvia (2002), The Essential John Nash, Princeton University Press, p. 6, ISBN 9780691095271, By the time I was a student in high school I was reading the classic "Men of Mathematics" by E. T. Bell and I remember succeeding in proving the classic Fermat theorem about an integer multiplied by itself p times where p is a prime. 
  7. ^ Hodgkin, Luke (2005), A History of Mathematics: From Mesopotamia to Modernity, Oxford University Press, p. 254, ISBN 9780191664366, The fact that Wiles was stimulated in childhood by E. T. Bell's romantic personalized anecdotal book Men of Mathematics to nurse an ambition to solve the problem Fermat's Last Theorem is in itself an index of the power which a certain view of the history of mathematics can exercise. 
  8. ^ Rothman (1982), 103.
  9. ^ See chiefly Grattan-Guinness, Ivor (1971), "Towards a Biography of Georg Cantor", Annals of Science 27: 345–91.
  10. ^ Beck, Matthias; Marchesi, Gerald; Pixton, Dennis; Sabalka, Lucas (2002–2012), A First Course in Complex Analysis (PDF), p. 26 .
  • Reid, Constance (1993). The Search for E. T. Bell, Also Known as John Taine. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America. x + 372 pp. ISBN 0-88385-508-9. OCLC 29190602.
  • Rothman, T. (1982). "Genius and biographers: the fictionalization of Evariste Galois". American Mathematics Monthly 89, no. 2, 84–106.
Other sources

External links[edit]