4-2016 Might is not always right

Archimedes of Syracuse (287 BC –  212 BC) was an Ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer. Although few details of his life are known, he is regarded as one of the leading scientists in classical antiquity. He is generally considered the greatest mathematician of antiquity and one of the greatest of all time.

Archimedes was contemplating a mathematical diagram when the city of Syracuse was captured. A Roman soldier commanded him to come and meet General Marcellus but he declined, saying that he had to finish working on the problem. The soldier was enraged by this, and killed Archimedes with his sword. Plutarch also gives a lesser-known account of the death of Archimedes which suggests that he may have been killed while attempting to surrender to a Roman soldier. According to this story, Archimedes was carrying mathematical instruments, and was killed because the soldier thought that they were lethal weapons.

MORAL OF THE STORY: If an armed brute is talking to you, hide all the mathematical instruments you have.


3-2016 The revolutionary mathematician

Évariste Galois (French: (25 October 1811 – 31 May 1832) was a French mathematician born in Bourg-la-Reine. While still in his teens, he was able to determine a necessary and sufficient condition for a polynomial to be solvable by radicals, thereby solving a problem standing for 350 years. His work laid the foundations for Galois theory and group theory, two major branches of abstract algebra, and the subfield of Galois connections. He died at age 20 from wounds suffered in a duel.

Galois was also a political firebrand. He was even jailed several times for his anti-royalty activities. On Bastille Day of 1831 (14 July), Galois was at the head of a protest, wearing the uniform of the disbanded artillery, and came heavily armed with several pistols, a rifle, and a dagger. He was again arrested. On 23 October he was sentenced to six months in prison for illegally wearing a uniform. He was released on 29 April 1832. Fortunately for all, during his imprisonment, he continued developing his mathematical ideas.

Tragedy was to strike Galois, for in July 1829 his father committed suicide. The priest of Bourg-la-Reine forged Mayor Galois' name on malicious forged epigrams directed at Galois' own relatives. Galois' father was a good natured man and the scandal that ensued was more than he could stand. He hanged himself in his Paris apartment only a few steps from Louis-le-Grand where his son was studying. Galois was deeply affected by his father's death and it greatly influenced the direction his life was to take.

Siméon Poisson, a French mathematician, geometer, and physicist. asked him to submit his work on the theory of equations, which he did on 17 January 1831. Around 4 July 1831, Poisson declared Galois's work "incomprehensible", declaring that "[Galois's] argument is neither sufficiently clear nor sufficiently developed to allow us to judge its rigor"; however, the rejection report ends on an encouraging note: "We would then suggest that the author should publish the whole of his work in order to form a definitive opinion."Galois did not ignore Poisson's advice, as he began collecting all his mathematical manuscripts while still in prison, and continued polishing his ideas until his release on 29 April 1832.

Galois's fatal duel took place on 30 May 1832. The true motives behind the duel are obscure. There has been much speculation, as to the reasons behind it. What is known is that five days before his death, he wrote a letter to Chevalier which clearly alludes to a broken love affair.

In March 1832 a cholera epidemic swept Paris, and prisoners, including Galois, were transferred to the Sieur Faultrier hostel. There he apparently fell in love with Stephanie-Felice du Motel, the daughter of the resident physician. After he was released on 29 April Galois exchanged letters with Stephanie, and it is clear that she tried to distance herself from the affair. The name Stephanie appears several times as a marginal note in one of Galois' manuscripts. Galois fought a duel with Perscheux d'Herbinville on 30 May, the reason for the duel not being clear but certainly linked with Stephanie.

Galois was wounded in the duel and was abandoned by d'Herbinville and his own seconds and found by a peasant. He died in Cochin hospital on 31 May and his funeral was held on 2 June.

Detailed speculation, based on scant historical details, has been interpolated by many of Galois's biographers (most notably by Eric Temple Bell in Men of Mathematics), that the entire incident was stage-managed by the police and royalist factions to eliminate a political enemy.

MORAL OF THE STORY: If you are an algebraist, do not indulge in fencing.

2-2016 How religious fanatism killed a woman mathematician

Hypatia of Alexandria was the first woman to make a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics. She is also considered to be the first woman mathematician. She was the daughter of the mathematician Theon, the last Professor at the University of Alexandria.

There is no evidence that Hypatia undertook original mathematical research. However she assisted her father Theon of Alexandria in writing his eleven part commentary on Ptolemy's Almagest. It is also thought that she also assisted her father in producing a new version of Euclid's Elements which has become the basis for all later editions of Euclid.

All Hypatia's work is lost except for its titles and some references to it. However no purely philosophical work is known, only work in mathematics and astronomy. Hypatia was an excellent compiler, editor, and preserver of earlier mathematical works. She is described by all commentators as a charismatic teacher.

Hypatia came to symbolise learning and science which the early Christians identified with paganism. This quality was enough for Christian fanatics of Alexaandria to antagonise her. She was also seen as a 'stumbling block' to those who would have accepted the 'truth' of Christianity were it not for her charisma, charm, and excellence in making difficult mathematical and philosophical concepts understandable to her students; concepts which contradicted the teachings of the relatively new church.

She became victim of the crossfire between Orestes and Cyril who spearheaded conflicts between Christians and non-Christians of Alexandria. In 412 Cyril, (later St Cyril) became patriarch of Alexandria. However the Roman prefect of Alexandria was Orestes (a pagan). Cyril and Orestes became bitter political rivals as church and state fought for control. Hypatia was a friend of Orestes and this, together with prejudice against her philosophical views which were seen by Christians to be pagan, led to Hypatia becoming the focal point of riots between Christians and non-Christians.

She was murdered in 415 CE by a Christian mob who attacked her on the streets of Alexandria. On her way home from delivering her daily lectures at the university, Hypatia was attacked by a mob of Christian monks, dragged from her chariot down the street into a church, and was there stripped naked, beaten to death, and burned. She was also severely tortured by scraping off her skin with clamshells (some say roofing tiles). Even those Christian writers who were hostile to her and claimed she was a witch, portray her as a woman who was widely known for her generosity, love of learning, and expertise in teaching in the subjects of Neo-Platonism, mathematics, science, and philosophy in general.

What certainly seems indisputable is that she was murdered by Christians who felt threatened by her scholarship, learning, and depth of scientific knowledge.

Whatever the precise motivation for the murder, the departure soon afterward of many scholars marked the beginning of the decline of Alexandria as a major centre of ancient learning.

MORAL OF THE STORY: If you teach maths, do not get involved with religious fanatics.