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 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.[1]

Eric Bell was criticized in 1983 for incorrectly ascribing the origin of spacetime to Joseph Lagrange:

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.[2]

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.[3]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Grattan-Guinness, Ivor (1971), "Towards a Biography of Georg Cantor", Annals of Science 27: 345–391, doi:10.1080/00033797100203837 
  2. ^ Rosiene G. Van Oss (1983) "D’Alembert and the Fourth Dimension", Historia Mathematica 10(4):455–7
  3. ^ 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. 

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