Who is the greatest mathematician of all time? In 1937, Eric Temple Bell, the most widely read historian and biographer of mathematics, placed Archimedes, Isaac Newton, and Karl Friedrich Gauss at the top of the list, adding, “It is not for ordinary mortals to attempt to arrange [these three] in order of merit.” This judgment, widely known among mathematicians, stirred a protest in 1997 from Charlie Marion and William Dunham in Mathematics Magazine. The protest was in eight stanzas of verse, of which the fourth and fifth read:
Without the Bard of Basel, Bell,
You’ve clearly dropped the ball.
Our votes are cast for Euler, L.
Whose Opera says it all.
Six dozen volumes—what a feat!
Profound and deep throughout.
Does Leonhard rank with the elite?
Of this there is no doubt.
Marion and Dunham were paying tribute to the mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707–83), one of the great yet little-known figures from Europe’s Age of Enlightenment. Euler’s discoveries continue to influence such disparate fields as computer networking, harmonics, and statistical analysis, and they did nothing less than transform pure mathematics. Children still learn Euler’s lessons in school. It was Euler, for instance, who gave the name i to the square root of –1. To mark his tercentenary, admirers are holding symposiums, concerts, and a two-week Euler tour, which will stop in St. Petersburg and Berlin, the two cities where he spent his working life, as well as Basel, Switzerland, the city of his birth. There is even an Euler comic book, A Man to Be Reckoned With, in German and English editions.
I am not a mathematician; a while ago, when I took a course on Differential Equations, I read a footnote in the text, concerning one Hoene Wronski (sp?). His name was associated with the "Wronskian Determinant", used to solve some type of DiffEq or other. The footnote described Wronski as "an impecunious Pole of rather erratic personality", so that is what I remember, instead of what a Wronskian Determinant actually is.
Mary Jackson had a good post on this human memory wrinkle a few months ago, but I don't quite recall it. Aach.
I enjoyed this. It is, I believe, unusual for great mathematicians to be as productive all their lives and not just when young. For a brilliant mathematician to be such an all round thoroughly good egg can't be all that common either.
Of course it's the maths that counts, but the other stuff is interesting too.
Did you know that there's a prize named after Euler?