Men of Mathematics

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Men of Mathematics by E.T. Bell

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.

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]

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.[2]

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.[3]


Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ Grattan-Guinness, Ivor (1971), "Towards a Biography of Georg Cantor", Annals of Science 27: 345–391, doi:10.1080/00033797100203837 
  3. ^ Quoted in the College Mathematics Journal 43(3):231 (May 2010)

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