Eric Temple Bell

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Eric Temple Bell
1931 drawing of Eric Temple Bell
Born(1883-02-07)7 February 1883
Peterhead, Scotland
Died21 December 1960(1960-12-21) (aged 77)
EducationStanford University
University of Washington
Columbia University (Ph.D.)
Known forNumber theory
Bell series
Bell polynomials
Bell numbers
Bell triangle
Ordered Bell numbers
AwardsBôcher Memorial Prize (1924)
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Washington
California Institute of Technology
Doctoral advisorFrank Nelson Cole
Cassius Keyser
Doctoral studentsMorgan Ward
Zhou Peiyuan

Eric Temple Bell (7 February 1883 – 21 December 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.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Eric Temple Bell was born in Peterhead, Aberdeen, Scotland as third of three children to Helen Jane Lyall and James Bell Jr.[2]: 17  His father, a factor, relocated to San Jose, California, in 1884, when Eric was fifteen months old. After his father died on 4 January 1896, the family returned to Bedford, England.

Bell was educated at Bedford Modern School,[2] where his teacher Edward Mann Langley inspired him to continue the study of mathematics. Bell returned to the United States, by way of Montreal, in 1902. He received degrees from Stanford University (1904), the University of Washington (1908), and Columbia University (1912)[3] (where he was a student of Cassius Jackson Keyser).


Bell was part of the faculty first at the University of Washington and later at the California Institute of Technology. While at the University of Washington, he taught Howard P. Robertson and encouraged him to enroll at Cal Tech for his doctoral studies.[3]

Bell 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.

In 1924 Bell was awarded the Bôcher Memorial Prize for his work in mathematical analysis. In 1927, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.[3] He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1937.[4] He died in 1960 in Watsonville, California.[5]


Fiction and poetry[edit]

During the early 1920s, Bell wrote several long poems. He also wrote several science fiction novels by the pseudonym John Taine, which independently invented some of the earliest devices and ideas of science fiction.[6] His novels later also serialised 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".[7]

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 mathematician Sofya Kovalevskaya), which is still in print. He originally wrote it under the title The Lives of Mathematicians,[8] but the publishers, Simon and Schuster, cut about a third of it (125,000 words), and, in order to tie in with their book Men of Art (by Thomas Craven), gave it the title Men of Mathematics which he did not like.[9] The book inspired notable mathematicians including Julia Robinson,[10] John Forbes Nash, Jr.,[11] and Andrew Wiles[12] to begin careers in mathematics. 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".[13] 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.[14]

While this book was under printing, he also wrote and had published another book, The Handmaiden of the Sciences.[9] Bell's later book Development of Mathematics has been less famous, but his biographer Constance Reid finds it has fewer weaknesses.[15] His book on Fermat's Last Theorem, The Last Problem, was published the year after his death and is a hybrid of social history and the history of mathematics.[16] It inspired mathematician Andrew Wiles to solve the problem.[17]

In his book about Paul Erdős, titled The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, Paul Hoffman wrote:

Bell... had a rare gift for words as well as numbers. Those who have witnessed the deep truths of mathematics, Bell wrote, "have experienced something no jellyfish has ever felt." He had a knack for pithily summing up a man's character: Pythagoras, Bell said, whose mysticism had hobbled his mathematics, was "one-tenth genius, nine-tenths sheer fudge." And if Bell's prose was at times flowery, The Last Problem and his better-known 1937 work, Men of Mathematics, sowed the seeds of mathematical interest in three generations of readers.[18]

Non-fiction books[edit]

  • An Arithmetical Theory of Certain Numerical Functions, Seattle Washington, The University, 1915, 50p. PDF/DjVu copy from Internet Archive.
  • The Cyclotomic Quinary Quintic, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, The New Era Printing Company, 1912, 97p.
  • Algebraic Arithmetic, New York, American Mathematical Society, 1927, 180p.
  • Debunking Science, Seattle, University of Washington book store, 1930, 40p.
  • The Queen of the Sciences, Stechert, 1931, 138p.
  • Numerology, Baltimore: The Williams & Wilkins Co., 1933, 187p. LCCN 33-6808
    • Reprint: Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1979, ISBN 0-88355-774-6, 187p. – "Reprint of the ed. published by Century Co., New York" LCCN 78-13855
  • The Search for Truth, Baltimore, Reynal and Hitchcock, 1934, 279p.
    • Reprint: Williams and Wilkins Co, 1935
  • The Handmaiden of the Sciences, Williams & Wilkins, 1937, 216p.[19]
  • Man and His Lifebelts, New York, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1938, 340p.
    • Reprint: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1935, 2nd printing 1946
    • Reprint: Kessinger Publishing, 2005
  • Men of Mathematics, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1937, 592p.
  • The Development of Mathematics, New York, McGraw–Hill, 1940, 637p.
    • Second Edition: New York, McGraw–Hill, 1945, 637p.
    • Reprint: Dover Publications, 1992
  • The Magic of Numbers, Whittlesey House, 1946, 418p.
  • Mathematics: Queen and Servant of Science, McGraw-Hill, 1951, 437p.
  • The Last Problem, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1961, 308p.

Scholarly papers[edit]


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


  • The Singer (1916)


  1. ^ "Bell, Eric Temple, (7 Feb. 1883–21 Dec. 1960), Professor of Mathematics, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, since 1926". WHO'S WHO & WHO WAS WHO. 2007. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.U234623. ISBN 978-0-19-954089-1.
  2. ^ a b Reid, Constance (25 January 1993). The Search for E. T. Bell: Also Known as John Taine. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780883855089 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ a b c 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): 686–698, doi:10.1090/noti1009, retrieved 30 June 2013
  4. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved 30 May 2023.
  5. ^ Goodstein, Judith R.; Babbitt, Donald. "Eric T. Bell (1883–1960): A Biographical Memoir" (PDF). Retrieved 14 January 2024.
  6. ^ Reid, Constance (1993), The Search for E.T. Bell, MAA spectrum, The Mathematical Association of America, p. 253, 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.
  7. ^ Davenport, Basil (19 October 1952), "Spacemen's Realm", The New York Times.
  8. ^ Reid, p. 273
  9. ^ a b Reid, pp. 276–277
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Rothman (1982), 103.
  14. ^ See chiefly Grattan-Guinness, Ivor (1971), "Towards a Biography of Georg Cantor", Annals of Science 27: 345–91.
  15. ^ The Search for E.T. Bell, p. 307, The Development of Mathematics still strikes [topologist Albert W.] Tucker - among books on the history of mathematics - 'as the most interesting as far as I am concerned.' Unlike Men of Mathematics, which he finds 'almost fiction,' The Development of Mathematics was intended for an essentially professional audience.
  16. ^ The Search for E.T. Bell, p. 352, Thirty years later it [The Last Problem] was reissued by the Mathematical Association of America with an introduction by Underwood Dudley - who had some difficulty in describing it. 'It is not a book of mathematics. Pages go by without an equation appearing, and in mathematics books you are not told such things as that the ancient Spartans were "as virile as gorillas and as hard (including their heads) as bricks"...It is an unusual book.' Dudley concluded - as unusual as the man who had written it.
  17. ^ Broad, William J. (31 January 2022). "The Texas Oil Heir Who Took On Math's Impossible Dare". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 1 February 2022.
  18. ^ Hoffman, Paul (1998), The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth, Hyperion, p. [1], ISBN 978-0-7868-6362-4
  19. ^ Franklin, Philip (October 1937). "Reviewed Work: The Handmaiden of the Sciences by E. T. Bell". The American Mathematical Monthly. 44 (8): 530–532. doi:10.2307/2301235. JSTOR 2301235.


  • 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.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]