Men of Mathematics: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Mathematicians
from Zeno to Poincare, by E. T. Bell
I discovered a great book today `` Men of Mathematics: The Lives and
Achievements of the Great Mathematicians from Zeno to Poincare '', by E.
T. Bell, a Touchstone Book, published by Simon and Schuster. The book was
first published in 1937 by Scottish-born American mathematician and science fiction
writer Eric Temple Bell (1883 -- 1960). Besides being a gifted mathematician and a prolific writer, the author was
a President of the Mathematical Society of America, Vice-President of the American
Mathematical Society and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. One can expect much from a book
written by an author with such impressive credentials. Curious students of mathematics, as well as mature teachers will
find this book useful, since it suits both seasoned mathematicians and wannabes.
This is a 590 page book, and is available in paperback edition.
The book contains bio-sketches of more than 27 mathematicians, arranged
chronologically in 29 chapters. The book starts with Zeno of Elea (ca. 490 -- 430 BC) and
ends with George Cantor (1845 -- 1918). Each chapter (except two chapters) is devoted
to a single mathematician. Each chapter has an aptly chosen title which gives a hint of what
is to follow. Chapters are not chained to any
other chapter. The book can therefore be read in any sequence.
Contrary to the
impression that the book's title may give, this book is ``NOT intended to be
a history of mathematics, or any section of such a history''. It is also not
a chronicle of just anecdotes and episodes in the life of these men. In this
spirit, the book contains a fair sprinkling of mathematical snippets related
to these mathematicians. The dosage of mathematics is just enough to keep the average
reader from dozing off.
As mentioned before, the book starts with Zeno of Elea (ca. 490 -- 430 BC).Very little
is known about Zeno's life. Zeno of Elea is often
remembered for his philosophical problems based on paradoxes. Zeno's arguments
are perhaps the first examples of a method of proof called reductio
ad absurdum also known as proof by contradiction. The concept of “proof”,
so central to all mathematics, seems to have grown from the principles set
up by Zeno. It is not surprising that the book starts with a mention of Zeno.
This book gives us detailed images of the persons behind some great mathematical achievements. We can mention a few examples here.
This book gives an opportunity to learn about the tug-of-war between Newton and Leibniz. It devotes an entire chapter
to each of these two adversaries. Ironically, these two chapters are placed just one after the other. One can also get a glimpse of the
miserable life of Abel, or the aristocratic lineage of Fermat
Some people say that this book has a few historical inaccuracies. Complaints like
this are common in narrations of such vintage and magnitude.
Such blemishes, if any, can be overlooked, considering the huge amount of
information compiled by the author.
The lives of many mathematicians are witness to controversies and disputes.
Cantor was no exception. He sums up his reactions stoically as ``The essence
of mathematics resides in its freedom''. This sentence brings down the curtain on this wonderful book.
It is said that this book has inspired many young people, including the young
John Forbes Nash Jr. and Freeman Dyson, to become mathematicians. It
can therefore be of immense use to many of my colleagues and students.
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