The Folklore of Mathematics

The Folklore of Mathematics
The Folklore of Mathematics

There are several anecdotes concerning mathematicians, which because of their affectionate acceptance by people of the past generations as well as the present have acquired sanctity and become a part of the folklore of Mathematics. I have narrated below a few such anecdotes.

 Sir Isaac Newton, is considered one of the three greatest mathematicians of all time (Archimedes and Gauss being the other two), apart from being one of the greatest scientists. He had a cute little dog named Diamond which always kept him company when he was working. One day he went out of his room when Diamond was asleep before the fire. On the table lay a heap of papers on which he had put down the findings of his mathematical research for twenty years. When his master left the room, little Diamond woke up, jumped on the table and overturned the lighted candle. The papers at once caught fire. Just when the papers had been completely burnt, Newton opened the door of the room. He saw that the fruits of his twenty years’ labours had been turned into a heap of ashes. There stood Diamond, the cause of all this mischief. Almost any other man would have killed the dog on the spur of the moment. But Newton patted his little friend on the head affectionately, although his heart was full of grief. Then he patiently set to work again!.

There is an incident concerning Gauss, which he often related in old age with amusement and relish. In his class the pupil who first finished his problem in arithmetic was to place his slate in the middle of a large table. On top of this the second placed his slate and so on. The young Gauss had just entered the class when Büttner gave out for a problem [ the summing of an arithmetic series]. The problem was barely stated before Gauss threw his slate on the table with the words (in the low Braunschweig dialect): “There it lies.” While the other pupils continued [counting, multiplying and adding], Büttner, with conscious dignity, walked back and forth, occasionally throwing an ironical, pitying glance toward Gauss the youngest of the pupils. The boy sat quietly with his task ended, as fully aware as he always was on finishing a task that the problem had been correctly solved and that there could be no other result.

The man who knew Infinity, Srinivasa Ramanujan knew more than infinity. He contributed theorems and independently compiled 3900 results. However, inquisitive minds and those dabbling in mathematical science would also know him for the Hardy-Ramanujan number.

The Hardy-Ramanujan number is named such after an anecdote of the British mathematician G.H. Hardy who had gone to visit S. Ramanujan, when he was sick.

Mr. Hardy quipped that he came in a taxi with the number ‘1729’ which seemed a fairly ordinary number. Ramanujan said that it was not. He said that 1729, (the Hardy-Ramanujan Number), is the smallest number which can be expressed as the sum of two different cubes in two different ways.

1729 is the sum of the cubes of 10 and 9 – cube of 10 is 1000 and cube of 9 is 729; adding the two numbers results in 1729.

1729 is also the sum of the cubes of 12 and 1- cube of 12 is 1728 and cube of 1 is 1; adding the two results in 1729.

While, the Ramanujan number is not his greatest discovery, it is certainly the most fascinating and easiest to remember among all of his discoveries.

“And yet it moves.” may be one of the most famous lines in Scientific history. It is attributed to the renowned Italian scientist Galileo Galilei. The “it” in the quote refers to Earth. “It moves” was a startling denial of the notion, adopted by the Catholic Church at the time, that Earth was at the centre of the universe and therefore stood still. Galileo was convinced that model was wrong. Although he could not prove it, his astronomical observations and his experiments in mechanics led him to conclude that Earth and the other planets were revolving around the sun.

That brings us to “and yet.” As much as Galileo may have hoped to convince the Church that in moving Earth from its anointed position, he was not contradicting Scripture ;he did not fully appreciate that Church officials could not accept what they regarded as his impudent invasion into their exclusive province: theology.

During his trial for heresy, Galileo chose his words carefully. It was only after the trial, angered by his conviction no doubt, that he was said to have muttered to the inquisitors, “Eppur si muove”(“And yet it moves)”, as if to say that they may have won this battle, but in the end, truth would win out.

 The famous Greek mathematician Archimedes has gone down in history as the mathematician who ran naked through the streets of Syracuse, in Sicily, Italy shouting “Eureka!” — or “I have it!” in Greek. The story behind that event was that Archimedes was charged with proving that a new crown made for Hieron, the king of Syracuse, was not pure gold as the goldsmith had claimed. Archimedes thought long and hard but could not find a method for proving that the crown was not solid gold. Soon after, he filled a bathtub and noticed that water spilled over the edge as he got in and he realised that the water displaced by his body was equal to the weight of his body.

Knowing that gold was heavier than other metals the crown maker could have substituted in, Archimedes had his method to determine that the crown was not pure gold. Forgetting that he was undressed, he went running naked down the streets from his home to the king shouting “Eureka!

The tragic tale of Évariste Galois (1811–1832), a mathematical prodigy who died in a duel at the tender age of 20, is one of the most dramatic stories in the history of mathematics.

Most people owe what they know about Galois to a stirring account written in 1937 by mathematician Eric Temple Bell in his book Men of Mathematics. In a chapter titled “Genius and Stupidity,” he described the young Galois and his tormented state of mind on the night before an ill-fated duel: he wrote “All night . . . he had spent the fleeting hours feverishly dashing off his last will and testament, writing against time to glean a few of the great mathematical results in his teeming mind before the death which he foresaw could overtake him. Time after time he broke off to scribble in the margin ‘I have not time; I have not time,’ and passed on to the next frantically scrawled outline. What he wrote in those desperate last hours before the dawn will keep generations of mathematicians busy for hundreds of years. Great stuff–the sort of tragic but inspiring tale that readily gets passed on from one generation of math students to another. Indeed, Bell’s account is echoed in numerous textbooks, articles, and other material.

There is an anecdote concerning Michael Faraday, arguably, the greatest experimental and theoretical scientist of all time. He was unique because of his expertise in two scientific disciplines- Physics and chemistry.

The British Prime Minister Gladstone was diligent in matters concerned with his work, but there were, wide tracts of knowledge with which he had no sympathy. The whole great field of modern scientific discovery seemed out of his range.

When one day, Gladstone visited Faraday’s laboratory, he asked Faraday the purpose of one of his generators. He asked “Of what good is a new-born baby ? ” Faraday replied” Why sir, I will wager that one day you will tax it!”

Faraday was a legend whose life and work will continue to inspire all people who are ambitious to become scientists. In history’s hall of fame, he stands alongside Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Maxwell and Einstein.

Albert Einstein had three nationalities: German, Swiss and American. At the end of his life, a journalist asked him what possible repercussions these changes had had on his fame. The physicist gave the following answer:

If my theories had turned out to be false, the Americans would say that I was a Swiss physicist; the Swiss, that he was a German scientist; and the Germans that he was a Jewish astronomer.

It would appear that once Einstein had accepted an invitation to deliver a lecture to students of a University.

 As the date approached, he lost interest, particularly since no one reminded him, as he was preoccupied with various scientific concepts. He was in two minds about going for the lecture. As luck would have it his chauffeur was a well educated man who had studied mathematics and physics at school. Being Einstein’s chauffeur, he was also familiar with his work. Circumstances had forced him to take up a job as a driver of limousines. Einstein casually mentioned to the driver about his predicament. The driver suggested a way out . He said he would deliver the lecture to the students and no one would notice the difference. So Einstein drove the limousine while the the Chauffeur sat in the back.

The driver delivered the lecture and the students expressed their appreciation. Now came the tricky part. The students said that they would like to put a few questions. When the driver heard the questions, he remarked that they were so elementary that even his driver could answer them !

When Pierre Simon Laplace presented his voluminous work Treatise on Celestial Mechanics to Napoleon, the following exchange of opinions took place between them: Monsieur Laplace, I am told that you have written this great book on the system of the universe without once mentioning its creator. Laplace said

“Sire, I have never needed that hypothesis” .

Niels Bohr (1885-1962) was an eminent Danish physicist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1922, for his researches in Quantum Mechanics. On one occasion he was pondering a dilemma – whether to accept either of two theories about a phenomenon, or a mixture of the two. Both theories seemed correct, yet they were markedly different. He said the situation reminded him of the boy who asked the shopkeeper for a penny’s worth of mixed candy. The man handed over two pieces of candy and said, “Here is what your money will buy. You can do the mixing yourself.”

Andre-Marie Ampere (1775- 1836) was a French physicist and mathematician. He derived a formula describing the interaction between two electrical currents.

As an adult Ampere was plagued by absent-mindedness. One day while concentrating on a mathematical problem, he came on a stationary cab in the street. The back of the cab was a convenient blackboard and, whipping out a piece of chalk, he covered it with calculations. However, after a bit the cab moved off and Ampere watched helplessly as his solution sped away.

In the 1930s, an interviewer commented to the astronomer and physicist Arthur Eddington the following:

“I have heard that you are one of the three people in the world who understand the theory of general relativity”.

Hearing this, Eddington looked surprised. When the interviewer asked him the reason for his strangeness, the English physicist replied:

” I’m trying to think who the third person could be ! “.

Now I would like to end this essay with two anecdotes concerning Neils Bohr Persecuted by the Nazis, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, before leaving his native country, dissolved in aqua regia (a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid) the gold medal awarded with the Nobel Prize. He hid the bottle with the molten metal on a shelf in his Copenhagen laboratory and, at the end of the war, Bohr sent it to the Swedish Academy and there they recast the physicist’s medal !

For all his fame as the greatest physicist of the twentieth century, Einstein could never get himself to believe the Quantum Theory. He told Neils Bohr” God does not play dice with the universe”. Neils Bohr replied ” Einstein please stop telling God what to do. Not only does God play dice, with the universe, but he also throws them where you cannot see them! “.


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