Dramathematicians: Historic figures in the Mathematical Sciences

Artwork By Julia Thouas

Mathematicians have been handed the short end of the stick in history. Isaac Newton battled mental illness his entire life, Galileo Galilei was persecuted by the Church and spent his final days under house arrest, and Albert Einstein, who by all accounts led a perfectly pleasant life, is primarily remembered as a physicist. But through the years there have been more than a couple bad-ass m’fuckers in the mathematical sciences, reminding us all that scribbling away at proofs, and hemming and hawing in front of a blackboard can make for a very dramatic – and inspirational pursuit.

Having too much fun: Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601)

Brahe was a Danish nobleman and scientist so well connected that he was, at one point, best mates with or related to every single person in the entire government of Denmark. A larger than life figure, his eccentricities didn’t stop there. As a precocious youth, 19 year old Brahe replaced his nose with a brass prosthetic after losing it in a duel over the validity of a mathematical formula. He also owned a pet elk, Brahe’s frequent stand-in at social engagements, who later died after drunkenly falling down the stairs. Not unlike his elk, at 55, Brahe himself died of a burst bladder from partying so hard he refused to leave the banquet table to relieve himself. While Brahe was an astronomer at heart, his dedication to consistent and accurate measurements and observations helped pave the way for the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century.

Predicting the future: Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

Patron of the arts, a countess and a… programmer? From humble beginnings teaching mathematics as a very 19th century attempt to ward against her father’s ‘amoral tendencies’, Ada Lovelace is now credited with the basis for modern computers. In 1842, she was invited to translate a paper on computational engines from Italian to English. She upstaged the paper all-together with the appendices she wrote to clarify its convoluted mathematics. The algorithm in these appendices is now considered the first example of a computer program. Where other mathematicians saw no application for computers, Lovelace recognised that computation engines could go beyond number crunching, and be extended into programs that could write music, design patterns and transfer information. Ada Lovelace saw what no one else in the mathematical establishment of the time could see, and preempted the rise of modern computers almost 150 years in advance.

Living for nothing else: Paul Erdős (1913 – 1996)

Taking the phrase “suffering for your art” to the extreme, Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős was so dedicated to mathematics that he eschewed Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs all-together and never bothered with friendships, marriage or a permanent place of residence. Yep, Erdős lived most of his life homeless, effectively couch-surfing from one prominent mathematician’s house to another, and penniless, donating the majority of his earnings not spent on travel to charity. However, Erdős’ love for mathematics bordered on single-minded obsession. He was known to frequently abandon conversations about non-mathematical subjects, and would apparently fall asleep at parties where mathematics was not the topic of conversation. But despite (or perhaps because of) this self-imposed vagabond lifestyle, Erdős published 1,500 mathematical papers during his lifetime. As a testament to his dedication, this figure has yet to be surpassed.

Making herself known: Katherine Johnson (1918 – present)

Perhaps the only name you may recognise, Katherine Johnson is an African-American mathematician and astrophysicist known for her invaluable contributions to NASA. Beginning in the 1950s, Johnson was initially hired as a ‘computer’ in a pool of woman labelled ‘Coloured Computers’. Johnston then worked her way up through NASA’s flight engineering department to become one of the most respected and reliable mathematicians at the agency. At a time when women, and especially black women, were barred from key planning meetings and left uncredited on reports, Johnson broke both of these barriers. She was unrelenting in her assertion that she belonged and was more than capable of the work. During her career, her calculations were not only responsible for determining the flight trajectories of key NASA missions, the first full Earth orbit and the Apollo 11 Moon landing, but they also ensured the safe return of the crew in the Apollo 13 crisis. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, and now recognised in major film Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson rose out of relative obscurity to become one of the most well-known mathematicians in the United States.

Going to war with Mathematics: Alex Grothendieck (1928 – 2014)

Starting his Dramathematician career young, a 12-year-old Alexander Grothendieck broke  out of the Nazi internment camp, where he and his family were being held, with the express purpose of “killing Hitler”. After a tumultuous youth spent sheltered in the French countryside, Grothendieck suddenly grew to prominence among French mathematicians for his unmatched ability to revolutionise new mathematical concepts. An activist at heart, Grothendieck held an uncompromising anti-war stance which would inform his years to come. He refused a position at Harvard University because he would not pledge his allegiance to the United States Government; he gave seminars in the forests surrounding Hanoi to protest the Vietnam War, while the city was being bombed; and in 1970, he left the French mathematical school which was founded almost entirely for his work, when he discovered that it was funded in part by the military. While he died in relative obscurity in south-west France, Grothendieck’s passion for both his profession and his politics have led him to be remembered as one of the most influential mathematicians of the 20th century.


Rachael Welling

The author Rachael Welling

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