William Dunham, Muhlenberg College
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Abstract: Almost fifty years ago, Cambridge University Press published the correspondence of Isaac Newton, a seven-volume, 3000-page collection of letters that provides insight into this great, if difficult, genius. In this talk, I share my favorite examples of Newton as correspondent. From his earliest known letter in 1661 (where he scolded a friend for being drunk), through exchanges with Leibniz, Locke, and others, to documents from his days at the Mint in London, these writings give glimpses of Newton at his best…and his worst.
To add a bit of mathematics to the narrative, I stop to take a look at his first great mathematical discovery—the generalized binomial theorem as described in a 1676 letter to Leibniz—and show how “…the extraction of roots is much simplified by this theorem.” I’ll end with Newton’s most-quoted line about standing on the shoulders of giants and how my search for its place of origin led me, improbably, to a library in Philadelphia.
Biography: William Dunham has been the Truman Koehler Professor of Mathematics at Muhlenberg College since 1992. His books Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics (Wiley, 1990) and The Mathematical Universe (Wiley, 1994) were alternate selections for Book-of-the-Month Club, and the latter received the Association of American Publishers Award as the Best Mathematics Book of 1994. His next two books, Euler: The Master of Us All (MAA, 1999) and The Calculus Gallery: Masterpieces from Newton to Lebesgue (Princeton, 2005), were designated among their year’s Outstanding Academic Titles by Choice magazine of the American Library Association, and the Euler book received the MAA’s Beckenbach Prize in 2008. He has also edited a volume, The Genius of Euler: Selections from His Life and Work (MAA, 2007) and is featured in the Teaching Company’s DVD, “Great Thinkers, Great Theorems.”
Dunham’s interest in the history of mathematics has led to numerous talks at colleges and universities around the country and has carried him to speaking engagements at the Smithsonian Institution, on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation: Science Friday,” and at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, DC. In the fall of 2008 and again in the spring of 2013, he was a visiting professor at Harvard University, where he taught an undergraduate course on the mathematics of Leonhard Euler (course title: “Much Ado About Everything”). After stepping down from his Muhlenberg position in December of 2013, Dunham will be a visitor at Princeton University (spring, 2014) and then at the University of Pennsylvania (fall, 2014), and he hopes to continue as an itinerant math historian into the foreseeable future.