Pedro Nunes was one of the eminent mathematicians of the Renaissance. Born in 1502 in Portugal, most of his work was done in his native land. His interests were quite wide: geometry, algebra, navigation, mathematical astronomy, and more. He had a very high reputation among European scholars of his time. As an example, Henrique Leitão, one of the editors of this volume and of the collected works of Nunes (which are being published by the Fundação Calouste Gulbekian in Portugal), likes to point out the high regard for Nunes expressed by English polymath John Dee.
While many histories of mathematics mention Nunes’ name, the treatment is typically less than fulsome. Part of the reason for that is simply the lack of good resources: the collected works of Nunes are still in process of publication in Portugal and not easily accessible to scholars. Furthermore, there are linguistic barriers: Nunes seems to have chosen the language for his work depending on the intended audience, so his works are variously in Portuguese, Spanish, and Latin. It seems he chose Portuguese for his pedagogical works, Latin for material he thought might have wider interest, and (curiously) Spanish for his famous treatise on algebra. Partly as a result of the latter, his name often appears as “Nuñes,” the Spanish spelling.
This little book collects papers from a 2002 conference held on the 500th anniversary of Nunes’ birth. It too is linguistically challenging: one paper each in Portuguese, Spanish, and French, and two in English.
Two of the papers are specially interesting. Raymond d’Hollander discusses Nunes’ remarkable work on the loxodrome, the curve generated on the surface of a sphere when one moves in such a way as to make a constant angle with latitude lines. This is an infinite curve that spirals around the pole, so it is an unusual object of study for a 16th century mathematician. Eberhard Knobloch writes on Nunes’ work on “Twilights.” The problem addressed by Nunes in this book is the question of how to determine the length of the twilight period at different times and in different locations. Both works are, of course, related to Nunes’ work as court “cosmographer”: loxodromes are important in navigation, and the length of the twilight period is a natural question for a mathematical astronomer.
There is very little material on Nunes available in English. This little book offers a good entry point for now, but I hope the editors of the Obras will eventually provide a selection of texts translated into English, which should allow broader appreciation of Nunes’ work.
Fernando Q. Gouvêa has managed to obtain three of the volumes of Nunes’ works but is still working on the rest. He is Carter Professor of Mathematics at Colby College in Waterville, ME.