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10 Fascinating Facts about Famous Mathematicians
by Robert Black
When you think about mathematicians, you might imagine that they live boring lives churning out calculations, but you’d be wrong. Here are some strange and little-known facts from the lives of ten famous mathematicians. You can find many of their stories in our Mathematical Lives series.
1. When Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a year old, he fell deathly ill with a condition called “tombé en chartre,” meaning his body was wasting away as if he was being held in a dungeon. The local gossip claimed that a witch had cursed him, and when his parents questioned the accused woman, hoping to settle the rumors, she actually confessed to doing it. Supposedly, Pascal’s cure involved a ritual that required specially-picked herbs and the sacrifice of a cat.
2. Pierre de Fermat (1607-1665) wasn’t a professional mathematician or scientist. He was a lawyer and an official in his local government who only did mathematics as a hobby. Even so, the letters he wrote to intellectuals all over Europe paved the way for a number of major discoveries, and his theorems and conjectures have challenged amateurs and professionals alike for centuries. His famous “Last Theorem” holds the record for the most wrong proofs ever published. It wasn’t correctly proved until 1994.
3. Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) was the son of a man who had once helped Leonardo da Vinci with his geometry. Cardano grew up to be a skilled physician who was known across Europe, with kings, queens, and high church officials making offers for his services. But he was also a compulsive gambler who squandered most of his money, and he wrote books on astrology that landed him in trouble with the Catholic Church. His own son turned him in to the Roman Inquisition in exchange for a job as a torturer and executioner.
4. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) is known as the inventor of the modern nursing profession, but she was also a social reformer and a pioneer in the use of statistics. And she did most of that work from her bed, where she was confined for the better part of twenty-five years by a chronic illness that she had contracted on the battlefields of the Crimean War. Her articles making the case for reform in British India were so detailed that one Indian newspaper mistakenly believed she had visited their city. In fact, she had rarely left her own home.
5. When David Blackwell (1919-2010) first visited racially segregated New Orleans in the 1940s, he was intensely curious about the signs he found on a city bus marking separate seating areas for “white” and “colored” passengers—so curious, in fact, that when he got off the bus, he took one of the signs with him. He went on to become the first African-American member of the National Academy of Sciences and today is still its only African-American mathematician.
6. John von Neumann (born János Neumann, 1903-1957) was the kind of student his classmates must have hated. Sometimes he would come to school and admit to not studying his assignments, but he would then still do better than most of the class in the day’s discussion. For two years he went to college simultaneously in Budapest and Berlin, showing up in Budapest only when it was time for an exam, which he passed easily.
7. Today Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is known as a pioneer of the Computer Age. In his own time, though, he was better known for throwing great parties. Anyone who was anyone among the London intellectuals wanted an invitation to Babbage’s Saturday night gatherings. Among the attractions at his home was the “Silver Lady,” an automaton in the shape of a woman that Babbage dressed in different clothes each week to entertain his female guests.
8. Ada Lovelace (born Augusta Ada Byron, 1815-1852) was the child of a celebrity, like Jaden and Willow Smith or Miley Cyrus today. Her father was George Gordon, Lord Byron, a poet known for scandalous behavior as much as poetry. Lovelace never knew him, as disgrace and debt forced Byron to leave England when she was only a month old. Like the children of celebrities today, Lovelace grew up under the intense gaze of the press, which loved feeding rumors to a gossip-hungry public. One reason she took up mathematics was because it gave her the mental discipline she needed to avoid scandals of her own.
9. Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010) discovered his unique mathematical talent while on the run from the Nazis during World War II. As Jewish teenagers in occupied France, he and his brother passed through a network of safe houses, assuming false identities and living different lives. For a time Mandlebrot posed as a student at a boarding school in Lyon, and while attending a math class that he shouldn’t have been able to understand, he realized that he could re-imagine complex algebra problems as geometry problems, which he then knew how to solve.
10. Edward Lorenz (1917-2008) was one of the first research scientists to have exclusive use of a computer, instead of having to share time on a large mainframe. The Royal-McBee LGP-30, purchased by MIT, was called a “desk computer”—not because it could be placed on a desk but because it was the size of a desk. It also weighed 800 pounds and sounded like a small airplane flying low overhead. Its memory was about as big as that of a modern key fob, but it was enough for Lorenz to make the discovery we know today as “The Butterfly Effect.”
Robert Black grew up in Indianapolis, where his parents were both high school math teachers. He attended Park Tudor School in Indianapolis (where his parents taught) from kindergarten through high school. He graduated from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and mathematics. He has been writing for children since the mid-1980s, when he worked on the Nickelodeon TV series You Can’t Do That on Television. He currently works as quality systems manager in California. He is the author of a series of biographies of mathematicians called Mathematical Lives.