A Mathematical Conundrum

Leonhard Euler was an incredibly productive 18th Century academic, who made major contributions in fields ranging from mathematics to astronomy, engineering, and beyond.  Although from Switzerland, he spent much of his career in Russia.  He was born in 1707, the same year the British parliament was created by the union of the earlier English & Scottish bodies.  He saw the establishment of the United States of America in 1776, and died in 1783, only a few years before the French Revolution.

During those tumultuous times, Euler published over 850 books and papers in Latin, French, & German, along with a massive correspondence with the leading thinkers of his age.  Preparation of a definitive compilation of his work began in 1907 on the bicentenary of his birth, and has continued for over a century.

A serious question sparked by Euler’s life: – Why was progress in mathematics so slow in the 2 millenia between the times of Euclid in the 300s BC and the times of Newton, Leibnitz, Bernoulli, & Euler in the 1600s/1700s AD?  After all, the mathematical prodigies of the 1600s/1700s relied on pen & paper, technology which was little different from that available to Euclid.

A frivolous idea for a novel:  — The same question had occurred to Euler late in his life as he viewed the dramatic changes occurring around him, leading to his development of a form of advanced mathematics relating to populations, societies, and the emergence of technologies — loosely akin to Azimov’s idea of psychohistory.  A key character in the novel is one of the last modern mathematicians who can read Latin, employed on the final clean-up of Euler’s centuries-old correspondence.  In an overlooked dusty box, he finds some unfinished notes by Euler outlining the genius’s concepts.

The character soon realizes he is not the first to find these notes.  They had been copied 30 years earlier by a Chinese graduate student, who had taken the ideas back to China.  The dramatic growth of China in the last few decades had not been due simply to foreign investment, foreign technology, and foreign markets, as Westerners like to think.  It had in part been due to the application of Euler’s never-published mathematical techniques to manipulate Chinese society.  As the character digs deeper, he realizes that the equations point to instability after a certain point, and that China & the world are heading for disaster.  What to do?

Of course, to get a publisher interested in this novel, it would be necessary for the key character to be a disabled transgendered person of color.  We are so fortunate to live in societies which are not being manipulated.

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4 Comments

  1. >Why was progress in mathematics so slow in the 2 millenia between the times of Euclid in the 300s BC and the times of Newton, Leibnitz, Bernoulli, & Euler in the 1600s/1700s AD?

    Romans occupied with building an empire, followed by the Dark Ages in the West. Not so in the Islamic world. The word algebra is from the Arabic and the title of a book by some 9th century Arab dude. We got zero from India via the Arabs. Algebra and zero are big deals. The Romans had neither.

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  2. It sound like it is a great premise, but has to be very difficult to write if you’re going to get into the math.

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  3. Gavin Longmuir

    Yes, Franco — as they say, each equation & each graph in a book cuts the potential audience in half. Although Michael Crichton’s unusual novel on the Climate Change scam, State of Fear, did quite well despite graphs, footnotes, and appendices.

    Let me not miss this opportunity to recommend to any crustacean with even the faintest interest in statistics the excellent book The Lady Tasting Tea by David Salsburg (2001), ISBN 0-8050-7134-2.

    The focus is biographical, about the men & women who created modern statistical analysis, mostly in the 20th Century. The title refers to a summer afternoon in the 1920s when some Cambridge U. dons attempted to verify the claim made by one of group that she could tell whether the milk had been poured into the tea or vice versa. The tale runs from Florence Nightingale tending the sick & wounded in Crimea, to the search for the perfect pint of Guinness, to Deming’s contribution to the rise of the Japanese automobile industry, and beyond.

    The book is very well written; the biography and history are fascinating.
    However, the author had clearly been advised to steer clear of anything that suggested mathematics, leaving at least this reader wishing at times — Please just draw a graph!

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  4. I feel sorry for people who are scared of graphs and math. Innumeracy is like illiteracy: it cuts one off from a large part of the world. The difference is that illiterates and sub-literates are never proud of their ignorance. You never hear anyone say, “That book would be so much better if only used short words.”

    Back circa 1990 I used to teach adults how to read. Some seemed ashamed of their illiteracy and some not but all were eager to learn. I’ve never had more motivated students. There’s no comparable program to teach the legions of innumerate adults.

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