Giant among scientists, but few recall his name

April 13, 2007

To mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of the world's greatest mathematicians, Robin Wilson invites us to celebrate his life

This weekend marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the most prolific mathematician of all time. He fundamentally changed almost every area he touched, and his range was phenomenal - from the purest of subjects (such as prime numbers and the geometry of a circle) via whole areas of practical mathematics (mechanics, differential equations and the calculus) to the physical sciences (astronomy and optics).

He was equally happy calculating 50-digit numbers in his head and telling you where to place the masts on a sailing ship so as to combine the greatest speed or stability. Without him, much of present-day science would be fundamentally the poorer, and many of the technological advances we take for granted might never have happened. He was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. His name was Leonhard Euler.

If your response was "Leonhard who?" you are not alone. There are many like you who are equally unaware of this important figure in world history.

Euler has been called "the Mozart of mathematics", though a better comparison might be with his near-contemporary Joseph Haydn who was also inventing new genres (the string quartet) while greatly developing earlier ones (the symphony).

Any well-informed person will probably know the name Haydn. So why not Euler? Is it a lack of general knowledge? Does it say something about our arts-biased culture and the lack of a basic education in the sciences? Is it because, unlike Isaac Newton and the apple or Archimedes and his bath, there are no popular stories to go with Euler's achievements?

Some years ago, Richard Dawkins was a guest on a television programme that included items on Paul Cézanne, and on Francis Crick and James Watson. The interviewer clearly assumed that everyone knew about the artist and his paintings, but felt the need to ask his scientific guest to remind the viewers who the two scientists were. Dawkins was understandably irritated: for Cezanne's achievements, important and innovative as they were, will surely come to be seen as relatively minor when compared with the advances created by the discovery of DNA and the far-reaching advances in medicine created as a result of Crick and Watson's pioneering work.

A similar point was made by G. H. Hardy, the Cambridge mathematician, who asserted in A Mathematician's Apology : "Greek mathematics is permanent, more permanent even than Greek literature. Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not."

And, yet, when Cambridge University Press produced a book about the Ancient Greeks for schoolchildren, there was not a single mention of Euclid or his Elements , "the most printed book of all time after the Bible", which so fundamentally influenced curricula for more than 2,000 years.

There are signs of hope. Over the past 20 years there has been a huge surge in popular science books, and radio programmes such as In Our Time and The Material World are helping to convey the fact that it is just as shameful to be ignorant of Newton's writings as of Shakespeare's. Indeed, when the recent BBC poll to find the most important British figures of the past 1,000 years was re-run in continental Europe, Newton topped the list: our European friends seem to value our scientists more than we do. There is an increasing awareness that mathematics and the sciences have a history just as rich and fascinating as those of painting, music or literature, while areas such as fractal art and serial music are helping to break down barriers between the arts and the sciences.

Even the more popular aspects of mathematics, such as sudoku (combinatorial mathematics) and the Rubik's cube of group theory, are spreading the word further, though most puzzle addicts probably do not realise that they are actually doing mathematics.

Such were the depth and power of his range that there will never be another Euler. The world of science is now so specialised that it is impossible to understand the huge diversity of topics that he influenced so deeply, let alone to be proficient in them. So it is possibly with a sense of nostalgia that we look back on the life and times of this great man. And if you said "Leonhard who? may I encourage you to spend Sunday learning about him and celebrating his 300th birthday.

Robin Wilson is professor of pure mathematics at the Open University, fellow of Keble College, Oxford, and Gresham professor of geometry in London.

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