Some anecdotes about the life of mathematicians
You can find on the web a large number of anecdotes, but few of them are in French (maybe none of them ?), and as I have a passion for the lives of mathematicians ( which may result from an underlying frustration ?), I offer to make you discover some of the well-known stories and other less known. All this in order to remind us that they, too, ARE men ! For the complete biographies, please click on the pictures and you will reach the most complete and fantastic encyclopedia (in English...) on the web. The links on the names lead to my pages.
Slices of life :
Abel (norwegian 1802 - 1829) :
Niels Abel spends his adolescence in the Kathedralskole of Christinia where he is regularly beaten by his cruel teacher, Bader, who is fired after he hit to death one of his pupils. He is then replaced by Holmboe, who is more or less quite the opposite, as he shows so much educational methods and knowledge. As he discovers Abel's skills Holmboe becomes enthusiastic and writes in his school report : "The excellence of his intelligence is combined with a passion and an insatiable interest for mathematics, so much that undoubtedly, if he lives long enough, he will probably become a great mathematician." Besides, the headmaster had tempered the passion of his teacher who had initially written "the greatest mathematician of the world" !
Archimedes (greek 287 BC.
- 212 BC.) :
During the attack of Syracuse by the Romans, Archimedes is in charge of the defence of the City. He is said to have set on fire Marcellus' fleet at a distance with a combination of mirrors, but this point is vivaciously controverted ! Many experiments in the XVIIth century until the XXth century were reproduced, but the validity of this legend never really could be verified.
Another story about Archimedes concerns the end of his life. Even though general officer Marcellus had expressly asked to save Archimedes, he won't meet a quiet death. It is said that he was drawing pictures on the ground when a soldier came in, whom he asked to step aside. The upset soldier is supposed to have pierced him with his spear.
But, after all, the wealthy interior of the scientist may have a link with this sudden fit of fury !
The fact remains that the Romans will erect for him a tombstone on which is inscribed a sphere in a cylinder. This tombstone will be rediscovered by Ciceron in 75 BC.
Barrow (english 1630 - 1677) :
In addition to being a great mathematician and Newton's teacher, Isaac Barrow was also a famous theologian. Besides, he entered the holy orders as a priest. Not devoid of humour and character, his entrance examination with the chaplain has become famous :
Chaplain : Quid est fides ?(What is faith ?)
I. Barrow :Quod non vides.(What one cannot see.)
Chaplain : Quid est spes ? (What is hope ?)
I. Barrow :Magna res(A great thing.)
Chaplain : Quid est caritas ?(What is charity ?)
I. Barrow :Magne raritas.(A very rare thing.)
Despite his lack of respect and the consecutive hesitations of the chaplain, the bishop acknowledged his strong personality and accepted him !
(indian 1114-1185) :
His father was an astronomer and theology was in close relation with sciences at the time, so Bhaskara worked both as a mathematician and as an astronomer. His daughter Lilavati was going to get married, so he immediatly calculated the day and hour which were favourable to her marriage. But during the preparations, as time was going by, Lilavati lost a perl which blocked the hydraulic clock... Time for someone to notice it and the marriage wouldn't happen at the favourable hour anymore, so much that Lilavati had to remain unmarried. Seeing her disarray, Bhaskara wrote an astromy work made of poems, which he entitled "Lilavati " !
Bernoulli Daniel (swiss 1700
- 1782) :
The son of Jean Bernoulli was the founder of hydrostatic and took an interest in mathematics applied to physics. He was as famous as his illustrious father, who drove him out of the family house when the two men had to share the prize of the Academy of Sciences in 1734.
He also liked to relate the anecdote telling that he was travelling with an apparently cultured person who didn't know him and who asked for his name.
He answered "Daniel Bernoulli" and his interlocutor, visibly surprised retorted "My name's Isaac Newton".
This gave an immense pleasure to Daniel Bernoulli, not to be compared with any distinction !
Bienaymé (french 1796 - 1876) :
The poor Jules Bienaymé won't be lucky enough to resemble his name ! His "Polytechnique" (prestigious military academy producing high-ranking officers and engineers) school year is excluded in 1816 by Louis 18th who finds that students obviously lack of attachement to the royalty !
That's no problem, Bienaymé enters the finance inspection, from which he is excluded in 1848 for lack of attachement to the republic this time ! And as a final point, he is excluded from his post at the Sorbonne in 1851 !
Boole (english 1815-1864) :
Boole was a teacher at Queen's College in Cork and one day, as he was walking the 3 kms trip from his home, it started to rain and he cought pneumonia. His wife, thinking a treatment should resemble the cause of the sickness, put him into bed and threw bowls of water on him for several days !
That had as an effect to prematuraly put an end to a brilliant carreer...
Borel (french 1871-1956) :
There is nothing much to say about this famous mathematician, except he succeeded in being accepted in first rank at the ENS (grande école for training secondary school teachers) and the X (prestigious military academy producing high-ranking officers and engineers) at the age of 18 ( just like Gaston Darboux one century before). One may feel small sometimes... And you said you're good at maths ?...
(french 1935) :
Nicolas Bourbaki is, as it is well known, the symbolic name of a mathematicien actually representing the flower of the mathematicians who write for a common work. Originally created by Cartan and Weil, the name of this group comes from a French general officer, whom a former ENS (grande école for training secondary school teachers) student, who was pretending to be a Swedish mathematician, had quoted as the title of a theorem during a class.
Since the students hadn't seen the trick, they presumed Bourbaki to be Russian and named him Nicolas. Actually, Bourbaki is a word of Cretan origin meaning "Chief of the killers" !
In a treaty by Bourbaki, you can find in the middle of a theorem "un ensemble filtrant à droite et à gauche" (a set filtering on the right and on the left). In the final version of the work, this phrase has voluntarily been replaced by "un ensemble flirtant à droite et à gauche" (a set flirting with many people) !
Cardan (italian 1501-1576) :
Inventor of the homonym joint and of the solving of 3rd degree equations, Cardan was also like Bhaskara a renowned astrologer. However, his "exploits" in this field give us a rather funny image of the man. Thus in 1552 Edouard 6th, who was sick from smallpox, meets Cardan and asks him to draw up his horoscope. Cardan complies ans predicts a long life to the king... who dies the following year of tuberculosis at the age of 16 !
Afraid of nothing, he also draws up Jesus Christ's horoscope, what immediately leads him into jail. Then he takes care of himself and predicts he will die 3 days before his 75th birthday. In order not to fight destiny, he stops eating a few time before this date, and dies on the predicted day !
Condorcet (french 1743-1794) :
Condorcet is a marquis, however a sympathizer of the revolution and a Girondin, so he is looked for during the reign of terror. He has to change house everyday, what is really tiring... As he enters a hostel one night, he orders an omelet. The inn-keeper asks how many eggs he wants, and is very surprised to hear as an answer "Twelve !".
The attitude of this traveler puzzles the inn-keeper so much that he prefers calling the police, who puts Condorcet into prison. Because of threats from Robespierre and his friends, Condorcet choses to commit suicide. Small cause, big effects...
Euler (swiss 1707-1783) :
No need to introduce the man who is considered by some as the greatest mathematician of all times. He was an awfully prolific writer, publishing more than 800 pages each year !! Gifted with a fantastic memory, one sleepless night he calculated the 6th order power of all natural numbers from 1 to 100 and remembered them several days later. A sudden fever took his right eye. In Berlin's court Frederick the Great, who prefered brilliant minds such as Voltaire to efficient scientists, calls him "mathematical Cyclop". His offspring is prolific as well since he will have thirtheen children. Euler was second to none to stay patient with them and continue playing while writing an article... He passes away at the age of 76 as he was drinking a cup of tea.
Besides, his death is related by one of his friends: In the morning, he gave lessons to his grand-nephews, as usual, and had lunch. Then in the middle of the afternoon, as he was drinking a cup of tea, he suddenly collapsed, letting slip these last words: "I'm dying...". Indeed he had just suffered a stroke...
Fourier (french 1768-1830)
As soon as the age of 12, Joseph Fourier is gifted for writing, so much so that the diocese's dignitaries ask him the write their speeches !
In this religious environment, he however doesn't hesitate to steal pieces of candles in order to light up in the evening and be able to read the works of Bézout and Clairault.
Fourier also studies a lot about heat propagation. Obsessed by heat, sick, he thinks that it is the only thing which can save him, overheats his house and dies of a heart-attack !
Hamilton (irish 1805-1865) :
He was very precocious, it is said that he spoke 13 languages at the age of 13. Having a passion for literature, he writes poems and dares showing them to his friend the poet Wordsworth. After he read them, it is said that Wordsworth encouraged him to write in the field of mathematics !!!
Once he has become a mathematician, he seeks, after the plane, to extend the complex numbers to space. On October 16th 1843, as he was going for a walk along the Royal Canal in Dublin with his wife, a flash of lucidity, of which only mathematicians know the secret, strikes him and he realizes that a geometric transformation of space requires 4 real scalars. Still europhic, crossing Brougham Bridge he engraves on a stone i2=j2=k2=ijk=-1. What gives birth to the quaternions ! Hamilton's research conditions remain famous... He indeed works in the dining room. But his wife is a rather bad housewife and regularly brings him mutton chops and alcohol, which he certainly takes to excess... After his death his papers were searched and bundles of bones were found between two pages !
Hardy (english 1877-1947) :
Godfrey Hardy was famous for his skill to calculate swiftly. One day, one of his friends proposes him the following trick problem : 2 trains leave from 2 stations 160 km away one from the other and run one toward the other at 80km/h on a straight line. A bumblebee goes with the first train at 100km/h and follows the track. It goes back when it reaches the second train, goes back again when it reaches the first train and so on. Il falls dead when the trains pass each other. How much distance did it cover? (You can also try to answer this question !)
Hardy thinks for a few seconds only and answers "100 km".
"What, you found the trick?" answers his frustrated friend. "The trick, what trick? I calculated the distance covered for each journey, I found the general term of a convergent series that I added up and I found 100".
But since the bumblebee flew during one hour at 100km/h, maybe there was no need to seek this far !
Later on, during a class, he gives a result and as a justification he asserts "that's obvious...". Then, he scratches his head, wondering "By the way, is it obvious..." for a few minutes, walking around. He steps out of the room before his rather astonished students and comes back 5 minutes later. Then he says "yes, it was obvious !"
(greek Ve BC.) :
As a member of the Pythagore school for which everything is based on the natural numbers, he discloses the discovery of the irrational nature of 21/2 . In accordance with the legend, in those time when mathematics has to be perfect and based on natural numbers, his school fellows throw him into the sea and he drowns !
Laplace (french 1749-1827) :
Napoleon really admired scientists a lot. After he met and got along with Laplace, who moreover was his examiner at military school, he appoints him domestic secretary. However, Laplace's military carreer won't last more than 6 weeks, for the emperor rapidly comes to notice his incompetence and then certainly is ironical in his memoirs :
"Although he was a first-rate surveyor, Laplace soon proved himself to be a more than poor manager; and as he started
his first job we admitted we had been wrong. Laplace didn't grasp any question under its real point of view : He
was searching subtleties everywhere, had only problematic ideas, and finally put the spirit of the "infinitessimal" up to
the Civil service." !
Then Victor Hugo tells us that Arago remembered the following anecdote : When Laplace had published Celestial Mechanics, the Emperor had him come, he said. He was furious :
"What !" He exclaimed, as he saw Laplace. "You make the whole system of the world, you give the laws of the whole creation and in your whole book not only once do you speak of the existence of God !
"Sire" answered Laplace "I had no need of this hypothesis."
Ending on the priviledged relationship between the emperor and the scientist, after Napoleon had brought back some new results about elementary geometry, Laplace said to him, with some irony :
"The last thing we were waiting from you, General, is a geometry lesson !"
Lie (norwegian 1842-1899) :
Creator of the famous homonym groups, besides his intellectual aptitudes, Sophus Lie is gifted with an unusual physical strength.
During the 1870 war, Lie is in Paris and thus decides to walk (!) to Italy. As he was pausing, he draws landscapes in front of the fortifications near Fontainebleau, when he is put under arrest for spying. During the trial, the court's president asks him to give a lesson in order to prove he really is a mathematician. Lie has no other choice but to use all his educational methods ! The result is unexpected since the president understands all of Lie's words and considers him a rather poor mathematician. Then Lie has to ask for help from his Parisian friends to get out of this tight spot !
On another day, he is out for a walk, dressed in a primitive suit when, by coincidence, a murder is committed in the area. Searches begin and the police officer, seeing Lie, thinks he has found the guilty man. He chases him on horseback but Lie, who was very athletic, will never be captured !
He also wanted to learn his nephew how to swim by throwing him from a small boat into icy water with only a cork belt on. But the wind was blowing strong that day and it took away the boat from the child. Onlookers started to panic ! Subsequently, Sophus Lie became the malicious hero of many stories meant to frighten and calm down boisterous children in the Tvedestrand area !
Moivre (french 1667-1754)
In 1730, Abraham de Moivre gives an asymptotic assessment of the gap between the a priori and the a posteriori probability. For de Moivre, this proved the existence of God who strongly keeps in check fate's fluctuations.
Tireless, he moreover contented himself with 6 hours of sleep. As he reached 87 years old, he strangely began to sleep 15 minutes more each night. Then he calculated that he would die as soon as he reached 24 hours, what actually happened !
Neper (scottish 1550-1617) :
Neper is an eccentric person and keeps enforcing his wacky ideas ! He posseses a large property and groans against his neighbour who lets his pigeons devour the seeds in his fields. He threatens the neighbour to confiscate the pigeons if he does nothing. The neighbour, thinking Neper is crazy, accepts his challenge. But the day after Neper picks up the tottering pigeons on his field. He had moistened the seeds with whisky !
His eccentricity disturbs so much that, as often at that time, some people believe him to practice black magic... In his residence Neper is facing problems of robbery. He annouces that his magic black rooster will identify the one among his servants who robs him. Each one of them has to pass through a dark room and stroke the rooster, which Neper has previously coated with soot ! Afraid of being recognized by the animal, one of the servants doesn't dare to stroke it, comes back with a clean hand and drops his mask this way !
Newton (english 1642-1727) :
It seems that Isaac Newton has had some attraction for animals. Besides the horse he used to ride, he had a cat and a dog. However, he wasn't very lucky with these last two animals ! The first one became completely obese, for it spent its time eating and its master was too much absorbed by his researches to notice it ! As for the second one, the dog, he was called Diamond and had a bad idea when it dropped a piece of candle on Newton's papers. Newton got angry against his dog and shouted : "Oh Diamond! Diamond! thou little knowest the mischief done'' !
Very famous in his time, the pope Alexander is supposed to have said about Newton : "Nature and the laws of nature remained buried in the night. God said : So be Newton ! And the light was !"
Oughtred (english 1574-1660) :
He was a tireless worker, going to bed late, sometimes not sleeping for two or three days, and he kept near to his bed his lighter and inkwell, in case he had a sudden idea. His brain was constantly working. Completely uninterested by his health, he died of joy at the age of 83 when he learnt that Charles 2nd was back on the throne of England !
Pascal (french 1623-1662) :
On November 23rd 1654 between 10:30 am and 12:30 pm, Pascal goes into religious raptures and gives up sciences for theology, what remains famous. One 1658 evening, though, a violent headache prevents him from sleeping. He then decides to think about the cycloid to forget the pain. He really was surprised while noticing that the headache stopped straight away ! He concluded afterwards that it must have been a sign of God, who surely liked mathematicians !
(belgian 1801-1883) :
Joseph Plateau likes going in the extreme ! Interested by the retina persistence, he works out a completely crazy experiment : during the summer of 1829, he stares at the noon sun for 25 secondes in order to test on himself the consequences ! His retina seriously burnt, he will need several days ans he will suffer atrocious pain before being able to see again. But since he underwent to many after-effects, fourteen years later he will become blind permanently...
Ramanujan (Indian 1887-1920) :
His colleague Hardy relates : "I remember visiting him when he was sick and bedridden in Putney. I had ridden in a taxi of which plate's number was 1729 and noticed this number seemed quite sad to me. I hoped this didn't forshadow anything bad...
"No" Ramanujan replied, "This is a very interesting number, it is the smaller of natural numbers you can express as a sum of two cubes, in two different ways" !!
I asked him if he knew what was the next. He thought about it and told me he didn't see any close one...
Actually, since then, it has been calculated that the next number is several hundreds of thousands later !! " Actually, the next one is 87539319 !!. These numbers are now knwon as the Taxicab numbers !
Russel (english 1872-1970) :
One day, a student asks Bertrand Russel : "Do you claim that 2 + 2 = 5, it can be deduced you are the pope?" "Certainly" replied the great logician... "Think of it for a while. Let's suppose that 2 + 2 = 5. By substracting 2 at each side of the = sign,
we obtain 2 = 3. By symmetry, we also have 3 = 2 and, by substracting 1 at each side, 2 = 1.Now the pope and I are two, but, since 2 = 1, the pope and I are only one, then I am the pope."
Schwartz (french 1915) :
Laurent Schwartz nearly failed to enter Ecole normale supérieure (grande école for training secondary school teachers). As he was uncomfortable with written tests' pressure, he finished as the last eligible candidate at the competitive examination ! Fortunately, his mathematical mastery allowed him to make up for it and he graded first after oral tests ! Alain Connes (another great name of mathematics) concluded that the best mathematicians aren't the fastest ones, but those who are able to solve difficult questions, whatever the time they need.
Anecdote for topology specialists : During a trip in Poland, in Warsaw I think, Laurent Schwartz saw a signpost indicating Banach Place. "I have to go there" he thought, and he started waiting for the bus. But when the bus doors opened the driver said : "Don't come in, it's full !"( "full" is "complet" in French, which is the same word for "complete")
Serre (french 1926) :
J.-P. Serre is one of our most famous contemporary mathematicians and Fields' medal-holder in 1954. Pondering about theologie, he talked with God during a dream. As they had exchanged only trite remarks, God suddenly says : "There is something I have to confess : I don't exist.". J.-P. Serre answers then : "I've been knowing it for long ".
"Ah, then it is of no importance", answered God. And they left each other with a kind smile.
(deutsch 1486-1567) :
Stifel, a reformer who had a passion for the mysticism of numbers, prophesied the end of the world for October 3rd, 1533 (so soon !). Preaching in the country, he managed to convince many farmers to leave their land. D-day arrived, nothing happened and Stifel, in order to escape his "followers'" anger, had to take refuge in prison.
Moreover, as an arithmography specialist and a militant against the pope, Stifel demonstrated that the pope Leon 10th was the beast of the apocalypse. Indeed, it's rather subtle, in Latin it is said Leo DeCIMVs X, what gives DCLXVI after you remove M for mystery; now, this equals to 666, i.e. the Beast's number in the last book of the Bible !
Torricelli (italian 1608-1647) :
Evangelista Torricelli was a mind of a rare sensibility. Thus, during alternative publications, he got shattered to be called a plagiarist by Gilles de Roberval. He died of consternation and sorrow the following year because of it.
Turing (american 1912-1954) :
After WW2, the great logician Alan Turing looked for a way to get rid of accumulated stress and found what he needed with walking race. Besides, he was rather good at this exercise since he got the 3 and 10 miles records of the Walton Athletic Club! But his logical mind never failed to systematically reappear. So, in order not to lose too much time and to get organized the better, he trained and used his race capacities between the different scientific libraries concerning his researches !
He committed suicide at the age of 42 on June 7th 1954 with a potassium cyanide apple, in a moment of mental fragility... The reasons of this act are still a little mysterious today, but they revolve around three leads.
First, Turing was persuaded that a mathematician starts to decline after the age of 40, and he was precisely in a state of depression at that time.
He also spent his time synthesizing new substances, which he used to test on himself without worrying about his security, according to is mother.
Finally, the revelations about his possible homosexuality seemed to trouble him a lot and he may have wanted to avoid embarrassment...
Wiener (american 1894-1964) :
Norbert Wiener belongs to the small group of very absent-minded mathematicians ! It is said that one day, sitting down at a table in the university library, he seemed sunk in profound thoughts.
A student, who needed yet to ask him a question, goes near to him, intimidated, and says : "Excuse-me, Mister Wiener...".
"Thank you very much" he answers, coming out of his torpor, "Here is the name I was looking for !"
back to home page