With Leonhard Euler's 300th birthday just around the corner, the April 9 edition of the Washington Post contained an excellent summary of the great mathematician's remarkable life and career. You come away from the article appreciating the magnitude of the accomplishments of a true Renaissance man.
But "if one is not a mathematician," surmised Post writer David Brown, "it's going to be impossible to understand" why Euler was great. Other people, he wrote, "will have to tell us, and we should probably believe them."
Ronald S. Calinger, a mathematics historian at Catholic University, for one, ranked Euler alongside Archimedes, Isaac Newton, and Carl Friedrich Gauss in the pantheon of the greatest mathematicians ever. Others have described Euler as the "Mozart of Mathematics," not only for his genius but also for his prodigious output. Euler wrote 800 papers and books on pure and applied mathematics. His collected works fill 25,000 pages in nearly 80 volumes.
William Dunham, of Muhlenberg College, who edited the new MAA book The Genius of Euler, referred to Euler as an amazingly seminal figure in physics, as well. "He wrote about optics, classical mechanics, fluid mechanics and astronomy," Dunham said. "In those days it was sort of one big subject."
Brown's article also mentioned a 1988 poll conducted for the Mathematical Intelligencer, in which readers ranked Euler's expression, eiπ + 1 = 0, as the most beautiful equation of all time.
The piece highlighted Euler's grasp of Latin, French, Greek, and Hebrew and his musical ability and expertise in chess. It noted that Euler's life was both "relatively normal and quite difficult." He was married twice and fathered 13 children, though only five survived into adolescence. He liked to go to the Berlin zoo with his children in tow to watch the bear cubs.
Even after his eyesight failed late in life, Euler continued to do mathematics, using a huge slate set on a round table, dictating papers to his secretary. "You could hardly argue that he wasted a day in his life," Dunham concluded.
On Tuesday, April 10, at 11:00 a.m., Brown and Calinger will have an online discussion of the life and work of Leonard Euler.
Euler was also the subject of a commentary by Alfred S. Posamentier, of the City College of the City University of New York, in last weekend's edition of Newsday.—H. Waldman