To the humble PC that is displaying this text as I type it, Charles Babbage is its father. A British mathematician and engineer, Charles ‘Father of Computers’ Babbage was very picky about his Math. In fact, he even wrote to Lord Tennyson (apparently some sort of famous poet) and asked him to correct the lines of his poem ‘Every minute dies a man, Every minute one is born’ to ‘Every minute one and a sixth is born’. Of course, he was refused.
Having come into a lot of riches courtesy his dad, he spent all his money inventing rather exciting gadgets including the speedometer and the cowcatcher, which kept cows with wander lust off the railway track. Indubitably, his greatest invention was the calculator. The first one he ever invented was called the ‘Difference Engine’.
The British Government, sold on the idea of this Difference Engine, gave him £1 million so he could build it. After 11 years of trying and trying, Babbage gave it up for a better idea. Furious that their money was wasted, the government refused to give him any more. Not to be deterred, he continued on as before because, well, he was rich!
The Difference Engine version 2.0 was going to be bigger and better. It could do more than just add and subtract. It would be able to do multiplication, division and also printing. Babbage envisioned that the new machine would use similar technology to that of carpet making looms. Unfortunately, he died before the machine could be built.
In 1890, an American guy by the name of Herman used Babbage’s ideas to build a much simpler machine. If his name sounds familiar, it is because he went on to found International Business machines aka IBM. However, it wasn’t till 1944 that the machine of Babbage’s dream was built. The first calculate needed 10sqms to house it and it weighed 30 tons! The Science Museum in London built a model of the original Difference Engine in 1992. That one was only 2 meters high and over 3 meters long. Can you imagine what owing a computer those days would look like? Yikes!
Mr. P was born in a Greek island called Samos and despite the great views; he was more interested in Philosophy and Mathematics. He was also an expert in Astronomy, Religion and Music and wanted nothing more than to share his brilliant ideas with the world. Unfortunately, most people didn’t understand what he was saying and didn’t humor his grand thoughts. Eventually he paid a young boy to listen to him and soon he had created enough interest to start a school and recruit 300 pupils.
He was the most entertaining teacher of the time. He would hide behind a curtain and wait for his class to settle down. He would then jump out and yell the problem at the class and then go back into hiding. After a few minutes, he would jump back out and announce the answer – much to the amusement and confusion of his students.
Pythagoras is known for two major theorems. One is about whole numbers and the other about right angled triangles. They say that he stole the theorem from someone else (even the Egyptians say they knew of the theory) but he was the first one to be able to prove it. To celebrate, he sacrificed 100 cows only to find out that his second theorem disproves the first one. He covered up his mistake but his student leaked the information and was murdered for it.
The secret brotherhood of the Pythogorean School was being viewed suspiciously by the people. It came across as a dodgy sect. When people learnt of the student’s murder, the public rioted and set fire to the school when the members and Mr. P were still locked inside. Despite the horrible way in which he had to go, Pythagoras’s theorem is still being taught at school 2500 odd years later!
You know that quote “I think, therefore I am”? Yep, René Descartes said it – our beloved Mathematician of the month. The French philosopher had so many brilliant ideas, he had to stay in bed almost all day just to be able to wrap his mind around them (it might have to do with him being sickly, but we’ll ignore that for now)
His specialty is Geometry – you know, the math of beautiful shapes. One day while he was lying in bed, waiting for breakfast to be brought to him (philosophy seems a great career if you ask me), he observed a fly crawling around the ceiling. When his maid arrived with breakfast, he tried to tell her where the fly had been without pointing it out to her. This obsession led to him chancing upon his greatest idea – grids with axes.
While we give directions in relation to the most recognizable landmark, “along the corridor, second door to your left”, he created grids with numbers. So the fly started at 4,2 which means 4 along the grid and 2 up. The maid rolled her eyes and walked away slowly, refusing to acknowledge the importance of his discover. Within a few years, however, it started being used in Math, Physics and even Geography and is popularly called the Cartesian coordinates.
Personally, thinking causes me a lot of confusion and so for now, it’s on hold! To be continued …
Blaise Pascal was an extremely gifted Frenchman who spent a majority of his life devoted to God and the Christian faith. However, he was a genius mathematician who as a young boy and was saved from becoming just another obscure mathematician due to his remarkable contributions and discoveries.
When he was a kid, he was amazing at geometry and not having known about some mathematical discoveries, he rediscovered many of Euclid’s findings. At the age of 18, he invented an adding machine that seemed way ahead of its time. His invention was so well received that there is a computer language that is named after him.
Pascal and another top mathematician called Fermat invented probability in a bid to help a friend who had a gambling problem and was losing a lot of money. It turned out to be one of the most widely used branches of mathematics and perhaps the most important.
While working on the theory of probability, he did what he was slowly starting to get recognized for = rediscovering. He rediscovered an ancient Chinese triangle that is now popularly known as Pascal’s Triangle. I could go on about this triangle but it would give me you a headache so I won’t go there.
At 23, Pascal unfortunately developed a condition called dyspepsia which along with his insomnia made his life extremely difficult. Descartes suggested he should stay in bed and live on a diet of beef tea. This didn’t help him. Shortly after, he had a freak accident where he dangled from a bridge and his horses drowned. He convinced himself that it was a sign from God, telling him to give up Math. Vowing to live a more spiritually oriented life, he lived with Math. 16 years later, he died from stomach cancer.
Apart from his mathematical contributions, he is known as the inventor of the one-wheel wheelbarrow, of hydraulics and of public transport. It is safe to say he lived a very full life – the effects of his great work are felt even to this day.
I’m doing a series with my family where we learn about an important figure every month and learn about their life and theories. I got stuck with the short end of the straw, which obviously means I got stuck with Math. While all my moaning and groaning and whining fell on deaf ears, I actually found that I was enjoying myself. I thought I’d document little short stories here just in case some of you find it interesting as well.
Fibonacci c. 1170 – 1240
This month’s mathematician is a handsome young Italian man called Leonardo de Pisa (the same place the famous Leaning Tower is from) who was born to a rich merchant who would take the young boy along during his travels to one of his posts in Algeria. Leonardo, who went by his nickname of Fibonacci by then, started showing a fascination towards the Hindu-Arabic numeral system. Not having to work, owing to his riches, Fibonacci decided to travel around the world to discover math in different cultures. His travels took him to many Arabic and Mediterranean countries where he found that the Hindu-Arabic numerals were simpler and more efficient than the Roman numerals he was taught.
All of his learning and travel led him to write the famous Liber Abaci, spreading word on the new numeral system he had picked up. The book was first published 800 years ago and was full of mathematical puzzles. One of the most famous puzzles was –
‘If you put a male and a female rabbit in an enclosed space, how many rabbits will you have at the end of a year?’
The answer can be found using a mathematical model – a pattern that has now come to be called the Fibonacci sequence.
1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, …
What’s fascinating about the sequence is that the numbers appear everywhere in nature. If you could the bumps on pineapples and pine-cones, the family tree of cows etc. It can also be found in renaissance paintings, in the Pyramids of Giza and many other architectural wonders