Sunday, July 29, 2012

Badass mathematicians - 1: Evariste Galois

Most people don't tend to think of mathematicians as being badass. Popular convention - so vigorously and boisterously propagated by the media - sees them as hapless dorks. Thick glasses, messy hair and awkward social skills, the world sees the prototypical mathematician as a portrait in pitiful meekness.

On the contrary, the most influential mathematicians throughout history were people with an extraordinary zeal for life and were full of contagious vitality and energy. Sure, a lot of them were shy or preferred to stay isolated, but that was because they preferred to spend their time working on equations, not wasting time engaging in mindless pleasantries. Most of them maintained a healthy interest in music and reading, and some even went as far as to host lavish parties at their houses to entertain their guests.

In this and the next few posts (probably one a week), I want to highlight the lives and personalities of some of the more "colorful" mathematicians throughout the ages.

Let's start with Evariste Galois.

This is Evariste Galois:
"My jacket collar beats your entire outfit!"

Galois was born in 1811 in a France that was enjoying a roller coaster ride through history with Napoleon in charge. Young, impish Evariste showed exceptional mathematical skills. He started reading original research papers by luminaries at age 15.

Like the bright minds of his era (and ours too, I suppose) he tried getting into the French ivies.His efforts were rebuffed multiple times due to the following reasons:

a) He failed the non-math portions of his entrance tests.

b) He haughtily refused to offer proofs of his answers to his examiners during orals.

c) He threw a blackboard eraser at an examiner out of sheer exasperation at the latter's stupidity.

He finagled his way into some other university and started publishing papers, his first one at the age of 17 (what were you doing at 17, btw?). When Galois was 19, France rose in revolt against their weak king Charles X.  Our young math hero was known for his bombastic approach to life, math and everything else, and got himself in a lot of trouble by writing vitriolic letters against powerful people. He was unceremoniously kicked out of school for this bit of mischief making. He registered for the national guard because, and I quote, "If a carcass is needed to stir up the people, I will donate mine".

He was soon thrown in jail on bogus charges of "wearing a uniform". Six months later he got out, his spirit not bent an iota. He then proceeded to fall in love with a young woman, who did not share the same feelings as him. Seems like nothing worked out for him in life. Anyway, angered and disappointed he picked fights with political opponents and got himself challenged to a duel. Quite an inconvenience for a fellow who was far more intimate with integrals, continued fractions and number theory than guns, bullets and blood.

Presciently recognizing his imminent death, he spent the night before the duel writing hasty letters to other mathematicians asking them to safeguard his work. He scribbled hasty notes in margins of his manuscripts, leaving mathematicians of posterity with much valuable insight into such arcana as finite fields, root finding and a theory that would later bear his name.

Sure enough, he got shot the next day at the duel. Although he was rushed to the hospital, he died soon after. His last words to his brother Alfred were, "I need all my courage to die at twenty."

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