Men of Mathematics
Men of Mathematics: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Mathematicians from Zeno to Poincare is a book on the history of mathematics published in 1937 by Scottish-born American mathematician and science fiction writer E. T. Bell (1883-1960). After a brief chapter on three ancient mathematicians, it covers the lives of about forty mathematicians who flourished in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. The book is illustrated by mathematical discussions, with emphasis on mainstream mathematics.
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.
- Zeno (fifth century BC), Eudoxus (408–355 BC), Archimedes (287?–212 BC)
- Descartes (1596–1650)
- Fermat (1601–1665)
- Pascal (1623–1662)
- Newton (1642–1727)
- Leibniz (1646–1716)
- The Bernoullis (17th and 18th century)
- Euler (1707–1783)
- Lagrange (1736–1813)
- Laplace (1749 1827)
- Monge (1746–1818), Fourier (1768–1830)
- Poncelet (1788–1867)
- Gauss (1777–1855)
- Cauchy (1789–1857)
- Lobachevsky (1793–1856)
- Abel (1802–1829)
- Jacobi (1804–1851)
- Hamilton (1805–1865)
- Galois (1811–1832)
- Sylvester (1814–1897), Cayley (1821–1895)
- Weierstrass (1815–1897), Sonja Kowalewski [sic] (1850–1891)
- Boole (1815–1864)
- Hermite (1822–1901)
- Kronecker (1823–1891)
- Riemann (1826–1866)
- Kummer (1810–1893), Dedekind (1831–1916)
- Poincaré (1854–1912)
- Cantor (1845–1918)
In the opinion of Ivor Grattan-Guinness the mathematics profession was poorly served by Bell's book:
- ...perhaps the most widely read modern book on the history of mathematics. As it is also one of the worst, it can be said to have done a considerable disservice to the profession.
- There is a general impression based on the widely read book of E.T. Bell that Lagrange, in his Méchanique Analytique, was the first to have connected time to space as a fourth coordinate. ...However, Lagrange did not express these thoughts quite as precisely as Bell seems to imply....Thus, it is far from certain after consulting the original text whether or not Lagrange came close to formulating, even in his own mind, the concept credited to him by Bell.
- ...[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.
- 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.
Notes and references
- Grattan-Guinness, Ivor (1971), "Towards a Biography of Georg Cantor", Annals of Science 27: 345–391, doi:10.1080/00033797100203837
- Rosiene G. Van Oss (1983) "D’Alembert and the Fourth Dimension", Historia Mathematica 10(4):455–7
- Truesdell, C. (1984). "Genius and the establishment at a polite standstill in the modern university: Bateman". An idiot's fugitive essays on science: methods, criticism, training, circumstances. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. pp. 423–4. ISBN 0-387-90703-3.
- Quoted in the College Mathematics Journal 43(3):231 (May 2010)