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Gösta Mittag-Leffler: A Man of Conviction

Arild Stubhaug
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
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This book is a biography about a mathematician; the focus is on the man and his life, not on his mathematics. There is very little mathematical terminology in the book, but Mittag-Leffler’s life is covered in at times minute detail. There are several mentions of his being ill with digestive disturbances and other very specific events in his life. One example is on page 137, where there is even mention of the women he danced with at the Nations ball. On page 139 prices of such items as a letter and a cup of coffee are mentioned.

For these reasons, reading this book was a bit of a slog. It took me many sessions to get through it as I found it hard to read large numbers of pages at each setting. Fortunately, it does lighten up a bit in the middle of the book, where there is more discussion of Mittag-Leffler’s professional activities. As a mathematician, I found that his activity in journals and his contacts with other mathematicians and scientists made for interesting reading, for he was one of the transitional figures in the field.

Before the nineteenth century, there was research in mathematics but no real departments of mathematical research. Mathematicians communicated their results to each other but the concept of the professional mathematics journal didn’t really become a global reality until the late nineteenth century. Mittag-Leffler was one of the mathematicians that helped make this possible. His work throughout Scandinavia was also mathematically and socially significant; one point lost in history is how much animosity there was between Norwegians, Swedes and Finns in this time and Mittag-Leffler was a figure that helped reduce the tension between them. His work with Sonia Kovalevsky helped pave the way for the acceptance of women as mathematical equals.

It takes some effort to get through this book and there are many passages that can easily be skipped over. However, it is an important biography of a man that played a significant role in the development of the modern mathematical community.

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.