Men of Mathematics

This is something that I wrote this morning as a response on the History of Astronomy mailing list; having written it I have decided to cross post it here.

John Briggs is the second person in two days, who has recommended Eric Temple Bell’s “Men of Mathematics”. I can’t remember who the first one was, as I only registered it in passing, and it might not even have been on this particular mailing list. Immediately after John Briggs recommended it Rudi Lindner endorsed that recommendation. This series of recommendations has led me to say something about the role that book played in my own life and my view of it now.

“Men of Mathematics” was the first book on the history of science and/or mathematics that I ever read. I was deeply passionate fan of maths at school and my father gave me Bell’s book to read when I was sixteen years old. My other great passion was history and I had been reading history books since I taught myself to read at the age of three. Here was a book that magically combined my two great passions. I devoured it. Bell has a fluid narrative style and the book is easy to read and very stimulating.

Bell showed me that the calculus, that I had recently fallen in love with, had been invented/discovered (choose the verb that best fits your philosophy of maths), something I had never even considered before. Not only that but it was done independently by two of the greatest names in the history of science, Newton and Leibniz, and that this led to one of the most embittered priority and plagiarism disputes in intellectual history. He introduced me to George Boole, whom I had never heard of before and whose work and its reception in the 19th century I would seriously study many years later in a long-year research project into the history of formal or mathematical logic, my apprenticeship as a historian of science.

Bell’s tome ignited a burning passion for the history of mathematics in my soul, which rapidly developed into a passion for the whole of the history of science; a passion that is still burning brightly fifty years later. So would I join the chorus of those warmly recommending “Men of Mathematics”? No, actually I wouldn’t.

Why, if as I say Bell’s book played such a decisive role in my own development as a historian of mathematics/science, do I reject it now? Bell’s florid narrative writing style is very seductive but it is unfortunately also very misleading. Bell is always more than prepared to sacrifice truth and historical accuracy for a good story. The result is that his potted biographies are hagiographic, mythologizing and historically inaccurate, often to a painful degree. I spent a lot of time and effort unlearning a lot of what I had learnt from Bell. His is exactly the type of sloppy historiography against which I have taken up my crusade on my blog and in my public lectures in my later life. Sorry but, although it inspired me in my youth, I think Bell’s book should be laid to rest and not recommended to new generations.



Filed under Book Reviews, History of Logic, History of Mathematics, History of science, Myths of Science

23 responses to “Men of Mathematics

  1. There is an analogue to Bell’s book that you would instead recommend for young people to read today?

  2. DEAR THONYC Have you heared somehing about Jost Bürgi, who was earlier with quinquisection than Briggs? I’m sending you a script I’m working on to illustrade this. Kind regards FRiTZ STAUDACHER

  3. I read “Men of Mathematics” as a teenager. And I was impressed. But it did not turn me into an historian. I stayed with mathematics.

    I agree with your criticism. Bell was too much into making it a simplistic story of heros. Reality is far more complex.

    As for Leibniz and Newton coming up with Calculus at around the same time — well, we similar “at the same time” events throughout the history of science and mathematics. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that there were suggestive ideas “in the wind” that preceded these developments. It wasn’t mere coincidence.

    • In my youth dual discoveries in #histSTM (Newton-Leibniz, Darwin-Wallace) were regarded as something special. Now, I think, multiple contemporaneous discoveries/inventions are regarded as the norm. The time was/is ripe!

  4. Not sure it can even be compared to Bell’s work, but perhaps worth noting that Ian Stewart came out this year with “Significant Figures,” his own biographical take on a couple dozen famous mathematicians.

    • Probably better than Bell in terms of historical accuracy, however although Ian Stewart is very good at explaining maths he does tend to be a bit dodgy on the history.

  5. Bell’s “Men of Mathematics” was the first book on History of Mathematics that I read too. It saddened me later, when I learned more about mathematics, that he had chosen to end his biographies at the close of the 19th Century, for Emmy Noether would have been an excellent subject for his biographical style.

    The book I would recommend now is “Thinking about Mathematics” by Stewart Shapiro (ISBN 978-0-19-289306-2), which is not a series of biographies but concentrates instead on the development of mathematical ideas.

    • Men of Mathematics was written in 1937 and Emmy Noether had only died two years before. She didn’t really become ‘famous’ till much later as both he theory in physics and her work in abstract algebra took time to become accepted and acknowledged.

  6. I’ve only dipped into it here and there, but I’d take a look at John Stillwell’s Mathematics and Its History, now in its 3rd edition (2010). Stillwell is generally a good writer.

    That said, I’d still recommend Bell’s book to a young reader, but with a caveat: “This book has inspired many young people to go into math, but a better title for it would be Myths of Mathematics.”

  7. Can I jump in and plug my own book? “The Universe in Zero Words” (Princeton University Press, 2012) was my attempt to choose the 24 greatest equations in mathematical history and give short histories of them. I am not a historian and so my book might not fully live up to Thony C.’s standards, but I tried to be more accurate than Bell and I also tried to give the 20th century its due. (I wrote about six equations from antiquity, six from 1400-1800, six from 1800-1900 and six from 1900 to today.)

    I definitely had high-school-age readers in mind when writing the book, although some of the later chapters might be challenging for them. My book was named a finalist for the 2017 Premio Asimov, a science-book prize voted on by 1400 high-school students in Italy. Even though I didn’t win, the nomination validated my belief that such students can still be excited by a book that is true to the history and faithful to the mathematics.

    (End blatant self-promotion.)

  8. I never checked the historical accuracy but I found Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh when I was a mathematics loving kid and loved it (read my paperback copy into pieces). Just knowing that others (and some of them women) had shared my passion was inspiring.

  9. Pingback: Not so much a book review more a WHAT THE F… | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  10. Ash Jogalekar

    I think it depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to get someone excited about mathematics – and Bell’s book did that to many famous mathematicians – that’s completely fine. Even the ones who were inspired by it noted that it wasn’t very accurate later on. I am all for using whatever tools are available to get young people interested in science, as long as at some point in time they are made aware of the exact nature of those tools.

  11. Angela G

    Only just came upon your blog, and am really enjoying it! I have been looking for a Bell like book to give to my godson, so the discussion in the comments is most useful!

  12. Education requires learning and then un-learning at times, we have all been there. Over simplified history, inaccurate scientific principles etc. taught during school years need fixing later on. Similarly if the book did a good job of inspiring you why should it not be recommended to the newer generations? The fixing process can happen after the inspiring.

    • “…why should it not be recommended to the newer generations?” Because in the meantime there are many, much better, introductory books on the history of mathematics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s