Thursday, 2 October 2014

A tribute to outstanding thinkers. From another.

“In Our Time” is back on air on BBC Radio 4, after the summer break. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the season opened with a programme on Leonhard Euler, probably the most prolific scientist and mathematician who has ever lived. 

Leonhard Euler: prolific mathematician
He just couldn’t stop himself working and publishing on any subject that caught his interest, so ended up contributing in a huge number of areas: on the flow of fluids, on the capability of columns to support weight, on pure number theory (he’s the only man to have two numbers named after him), on mathematical methods for physics and much more.

I came to know a little about Euler a third of a century ago, in my misspent youth, part of which I devoted to studying an obscure eighteenth-century French scientist, Maupertuis, made only infinitesimally less obscure by my efforts. It was thanks to Maupertuis that I came to know what has become a favourite city of mine, Basel in Switzerland, and it was thanks to a visit there that I find myself over thirty years on the husband of a Frenchwoman and the father of three Frenchmen (well, they’re Brits too, but that doesn’t make as good a cadence).

Maupertuis went to Basel because, though it’s a relatively small city, it had an extraordinary flowering of scientific brilliance in the eighteenth century. Euler was its most prestigious expression, but it was perhaps even more striking that three generations of a single family, the Bernoullis, produced eight major scientists and mathematicians. Maupertuis travelled to Basel to study with one of them, Johann, and to live with another, also and confusingly called Johann (the son of the former and, though they presumably didn’t realise it at the time, also the man in whose house Maupertuis would eventually die some thirty years later).

The Bernoulli family: eight major scientists in three generations
It was one of the Bernoullis who sprang to mind when I heard Melvyn Bragg and his guests talking about Euler on “In Our Time” the other day. Daniel Bernoulli was one of the more important mathematicians from his family, not quite the equal of Euler but a close collaborator of his for a great many years, in St Petersburg and the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences. 

In later life, Bernoulli said that there were two incidents in his career of which he would be proud until his dying day.

Daniel Bernoulli: two incidents game him particular pride
The first was a dinner during which Euler posed a mathematical problem that had defeated him and on which he’d been working for several days. It gave Bernoulli enormous satisfaction to have solved it before they left the table.

The second didn’t concern Euler directly. Bernoulli tells that he was once on a long journey by coach and fell into conversation with a fellow passenger. Eventually they came to introduce themselves to each other.

“I’m Daniel Bernoulli,” said Daniel Bernoulli.

“Oh, sure,” replied his companion, “in that case I’m Isaac Newton.”

I like both stories, not just because of their wit, but principally because they are both at first sight boasts but, when looked at more carefully, they turn out to be tributes to other greater thinkers.

Euler and Newton: who could deserve such tributes more?


Anonymous said...

I'd have liked to know the problem Euler posed at that dinner


David Beeson said...

I'll have a hunt to see if I can find out. If I ever knew, I can't remember.