Bell, Eric Temple. Men of Mathematics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1937.

 

Bell, Eric Temple. Men of Mathematics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1937.

This is a well written collection of short biographies of important figures in mathematics. The
author clearly loves his work. He writes enthusiastically, and several reputable mathematicians
report that they were moved by this work.

At times one gets the feeling that Bell is intent on exposing the seamy side of science. His stories
on Leibniz, Gauss, and Laplace, are particularly revealing of their "abnormal" psychologies.
There are tragedies as well: the best example is Bell's condemnation of scientists for their failure
to recognize the genius of Evareste Galois, Bell's candidate for a "heretic condemned by fools."
There are too tales of placid men who did exciting mathematics.

Concerning Laplace, Bell writes: "It was his practice to steal outrageously, right and left,
wherever he could lay his hands on anything of his contemporaries and predecessors which he
could use. Others have severely censured Laplace for his failure to acknowledge his
collaborator's contributions..." (p. 131)

A bit later in his commentary, concerning "Celestial Mechanics," Bell has it: "Theorums and
formulae are appropriated wholesale without acknowledgment, and a production which may be
described as the organized result of a century of patient toil presents itself to the world as the
offspring of a single brain." Bell footnes Agnes Mary Clark in Brittanica, 11th edition, "From
Legrange, for example, he (Leplace) lifted the fundamental concept of the potential... from
Legendre he took whatever he needed in the way of analysis; and finally, in his masterpiece, the
Mechanique Celeste, he deliberately omits references to the work of others incorporated in his
own, with the intention of leaving posterity to infer that he alone created the mathematical theory
of the heavens." (p. 174)

"Laplace was not a bad man...(but) the almost universal admiration for Laplace's scientific
genius did not mitigate the widespread distrust inspired by his political adaptability." (p. 176).
Laplace was a Republican during the revolution, a favorite of Napoleon during the Empire, but
fell quite in line with the return of the Bourbons. He could, in short, be a scientist for any of
them.