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Euler's Constancy

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.

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