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Mactutor Mathematician Biographies

Someone was asking me today on how a non-math person could get some source for fleshing out the character, and find a departure points for putting some wierdness in. The Mactutor biographies make very entertaining reading. Math history is fascinating, its worth taking a course on and the math is usualy not too difficult. It reads like a secret history of civilization. Some of my favorite colorful mathmaticians, chronologically:

Hypatia of Alexandria, murdered by a christian mob

Omar Khayyam. Yes, THAT Omar Khayyam.

The renaissance feud between Girolamo Cardano (the Ars Magna) and self taught Nicolo Tartaglia.

Isaac Newton was an alchemist. He considered his religious writings more important than his famous Principia.

The passionate frenchwoman, Gabrielle Emilie du Chalet, mistress of Voltaire.

Evariste Galois, the young romantic, whose put his theories into a letter the night before he was killed in a duel. He was probably the stalky sort.

Janos Bolyai, who found the way to non-euclidean geometries that nearly drove his father mad.

Caroline Hershel, the celebrated maid, dwarfed by a childhood illness

Georg Cantor, plagued by mental illness and infinity

Srinivasa Ramanujan, a story which is downright operatic

John Nash (A Beautiful Mind) lived with schizophrenia

Grigory Perelman, the russian recluse that turned down the prize for solving one of the Millenium Problems, rumored to live on a diet of yogurt and black rye bread

Ted Kazinsky, the Unabomber



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  1. Mr Tenk Mr Tenk September 22, 2010

    John “Marvellous Merchiston” Napier, 1550-1617, famous for the napier’s bones calculator,  was an astrologer:

    It would be surprising if a man of such great an intellect as Napier did
    not appear rather strange to his contemporaries and, given the
    superstitious age in which he lived, strange stories began to circulate.
    Many traditions suggest that Napier was

    … in league with the powers of darkness…

    and these are taken seriously in the biased biography written by Mark Napier, one of John Napier’s descendants. Mark Napier
    suggests that John Napier deliberately played upon the primitive beliefs
    of his servants by going round with a cock which he had covered in
    soot. Even the Statistical Account (quoted above) says:-

    [Napier] used frequently to walk out in his nightgown and cap.
    This, with some things which to the vulgar appear rather odd, fixed on
    him the character of a warlock. It was formerly believed and currently
    reported that he was in compact with the devil; and that the time he
    spent in study was spent in learning the black art and holding
    conversation with Old Nick.

    Napier, however, will be remembered for making one of the most important
    contributions to the advance of knowledge. It was through the use of
    logarithms that Kepler was able to reduce his observations and make his breakthrough which then in turn underpinned Newton‘s theory of gravitation. In the preface to the Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio, quoted above, Napier says he hoped that his logarithms will save calculators much time and free them from the slippery errors of calculations. Laplace, 200 year later, agreed, saying that logarithms:-

    …by shortening the labours, doubled the life of the astronomer .

    • Glaubrius Valeska Glaubrius Valeska October 6, 2010

      Who are the Ramtha folks?  Yeah, I know, I’m trying to get you started.  Is it something like the Zen meets Physics crap that bubbled up several decades ago?

      • Mr Tenk Mr Tenk October 6, 2010

        ramtha is an ancient egyptian warrior that a very clever woman claims to channel, and people pay big bucks to watch her do it, goes back to the pyramid power craze of the late 70’s. She struts around doing a bad male impersonation and cobbles together the current trends in newage and pop psychology into something that sounds deep and important when you hear it. Her current schtick is ‘quantum physics’ because, wow, that is real science and real science will help your credibility, won’t it? Who says you can’t make a fortune roleplaying? Looks like she is going in for botox injections and skin peels now, looking at her current youtubery.

        and while we’re on it… how about the fractal healing frequency hotline! Not just for mathematicians….

        • Glaubrius Valeska Glaubrius Valeska October 8, 2010

          Lawd-a-mercy!  How does this stuff get off the ground?  I have a slight memory, now, of Ramtha because her “revelation” came during my first year of University, and got some attention from the crackpot crowd that inhabits Austin.  This stuff never seems to me to pass even the Giggle Test.  Fractal Calls makes me wanna tear my eyes out.


          O, I assume you know the late, great Martin Gardiner started that Pyramid junk with his character Dr Matrix in one of his Scientific American columns.  I bet he dint see a dime of money for that, and here charlatans make millions off’n it.


          What a world, what a world…

          • Glaubrius Valeska Glaubrius Valeska October 8, 2010

            Aaaaaaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhh!  Jist stopped watching the Fractal video (notice I didnt say I finished watchin it).  What is up with these people?  What the h*ll is a recursive frequency inneywhey?  “Fractal homeopathy” is even worse!  Damnation, I sometimes think that if I had no scruples at all I could make millions of dollars…


            You were right, Mayor Tenk, I shouldnt have gotten you started!

            • Mr Tenk Mr Tenk October 8, 2010

              we could be very rich men, yes, but we both lack that unethical snakeoil gene.

              on a lighter note,

              you got any idea how many motivational speakers are actually retired birthday party clowns? i noticed a ‘how to leave behind the grease paint and graduate to motivational seminars’ track at a local clown convention. at least the performer crowd recognizes that they are doing just that… giving a performance.

  2. Glaubrius Valeska Glaubrius Valeska September 28, 2010

    I have aluz wondered whether or not Galois’ staying up all night writing down stuff on curves contributed to his loss of that duel what with him being sleep-deprived…

  3. Glaubrius Valeska Glaubrius Valeska September 28, 2010

    btw, a film called “Agora” will soon be coming out on electro-magnetic disk medium, it is about Hypatia, and she is played by Rachael Weitz.  In case you folks dint know a’ready…

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