Men of Mathematics

Men of Mathematics: The lives & achievements of the great mathematicians from Zeno to Poincare”, by E. T. Bell, ISBN 0-671-62818-6, 590 pages (1937).

Just think! A mere 80+ years ago, it was permissible to have a book with a title like “Men of Mathematics”. And a highly popular book too! The volume I bought came from the 33rd printing of the 1986 edition. Of course, in those earlier times, people were still well-enough educated to recognize the use of the term “Men” as a synonym for “Humankind”. And it must also be noted that the author paid due attention to women in mathematics. Today’s whining feminists should ponder the case of Emmy Noether (1882 – 1935). Nazis, the equivalent of today’s Wokesters, threw her out of the then world-leading mathematical University of Gottingen not because she was a woman but because she was a Jew.

The author explains that mathematics has advanced over the centuries due to the efforts of thousands of individuals. To illustrate that progress, he chose to cover (briefly) about 40 major figures, providing sketches of their lives, times, & trials, along with outlines of their principal contributions. The author suggests mathematicians have pursued a number of different approaches – some were concerned with the discrete, others with the continuous; some were pure mathematicians, while others were mathematical physicists; some concentrated on functions, others on geometry.

While the author valiantly tries to explain in simple terms for the lay reader the advances made by those various mathematicians, his explanations become more complex as mathematics became more abstruse in the later 19th and early 20th Centuries. Still, one can forgive a writer with the sharp pen of Dr. Bell. For example, his thumbnail sketch of Karl Weierstrass’s mother: “Little is known of Karl’s mother, except that she appears to have regarded her husband with a restrained aversion and to have looked on her marriage with moderated disgust”.

Some of the mathematicians were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, such as Descartes (1596 – 1650). Others were less fortunate, such as Abel (1802 – 1829), whose poverty-stricken upbringing in Norway ruined his health and led to his early death, while his poor French and worse German resulted in his contemporaries failing to appreciate his work.

Fascinating tales abound in this volume. Dr. Bell notes the well-known controversy over credit for the invention of calculus involving Newton (1642 – 1727) and Leibnitz (1646 – 1716) – a dispute which the Chinese SciFi series “Three Body” amusingly represented by a sword fight between the two mathematicians. However, Bell ascribes most of the unpleasantness to the nationalistic fervor of their respective English and German partisans. He focuses more on the oddity that Newton’s passing was celebrated with a State funeral in Westminster Abbey whereas Leibnitz’ unnoticed burial was attended only by his faithful secretary. Death, like Life, is unfair!

There are many interesting snippets in this history. Lagrange (1736 – 1813) became a special favorite of Marie Antoinette. Fourier (1768 – 1830) accompanied Napoleon on his expedition to civilize Egypt – and was abandoned there with the rest of the army when Napoleon did his moonlight flit.

There are very few books – especially nearly 600-page long books – where the reader’s first thought on reaching the end is to turn back to Page 1 and commence re-reading. This is one of those special books.


Cormac McCarthy’s last book, “Stella Maris” centers on the female math genius daughter of a Manhattan Project principle who met her then-teenage “Calutron girl” mother* at Oak Ridge. It is a series of interviews between this “Alicia Western”, and a psychiatrist that is attempting to record her unusual case while gently trying to keep her from committing suicide. They explore the history of the metaphysics of mathematics. Occasionally the topic of female mathematicians comes up in this exchange, reminiscent of the screen play for “My Dinner With Andre” in its engrossing austerity, and it is clear Alicia is a product of her time – but it is a transitional time: 1972. So we aren’t bludgeoned over the head with the sexual disparity as much as we are with the astounding over-representation of Jews among leading mathematicians.

*Turns out her Catholic mother was of Jewish ancestry as well despite being from the backwoods of Tennessee – although her father didn’t know it when he violated Manhattan Project rules to approach her while she was supposed to be tending her Calutron station’s instruments.