Forgotten Minds Leonard Euler

 

 

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We've all heard of Archimedes, Newton and Einstein and now the famous Stephen Hawking who is coming to the Perimeter Institute.  How many know about the most prolific producer of key mathematical and scientific work ever?

His name was Leonard Euler.  He was born in Basel Switzerland in 1707 and died in Russia in 1783.  He had a very interesting life.  It's hard to fathom a life in which a man would know all the great scientists of the world, and world leaders like Frederick the Great.  If he did not know a scientist, they knew him by his work

Why then has this man who ranks with Archimedes, Gauss, Newton and Einstein escaped the public eye?  The reason is stranger yet.  Nobody has written a complete biography of him.  Nobody has read all that he wrote in books, technical papers and correspondence.  There is just too much of it.

He produced the greatest body of work of anyone.  He was a mathematical genius and a scientist too.   At that time there was no little of no difference.

As a boy he was tutored by the great Johann Bernoulli of the famous family of mathematicians and scientists.  At the ripe old age of 20 he went to the St. Petersburg Academy founded by Peter the Great.  He came at the invitation of Catherine daughter of Peter, but she died while he was on his way via a seven week journey by wagon.

He had a happy and productive life fathering 13 children.  How he was happy, is anyone's guess, but he was.  He was first at St. Petersburg, but later served the dynamic Frederick the Great at his attempt to rival France, Russia and England in scientific achievement.  Euler lived at a time in which the French excelled in mathematics and science.

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Due to an illness, Euler lost all sight in one eye and later became totally blind, but year after year his output increased.  He was an acknowledged master.  Although he could not see well, everyone in Europe wanted to see him and understand his work.

Frederick did not understand science or mathematics, but he admired anything French especially the witty philosopher  Voltaire.  Voltaire carried on a banter with Frederick about the Cyclops Genius as he was called. Both men loved petty things and since there was no gossip they could use about Euler, they reverted to ridicule. 

Euler was hurt by not being named head of Frederick's Academy, but he served as de facto director anyway much of the time.  Tiring of the  turmoil, Euler returned to Russia to again increase his work output.  His patron this time was Catherine the Great not to be confused with the woman who had died when he arrived the first time in Russia.

If you read science and mathematics even on a casual basis, you run into Euler all the time.  He pioneered many areas in mathematics that have practical use.  Science stands on those who go before, but Euler is special.  Everyone stands on his strong shoulders.

Hollywood could make a wonderful movie about him, but it would have to last two days and that won't happen.  Will anyone ever read all he has written and understand it?  It is doubtful.


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