Letters to a German Princess


One of the most intriguing heroes in the history of science is Leonard Euler.  He ranks with Euclid, Archimedes, Gauss, Newton and Einstein.  He out produced all of them combined and yet he is virtually unknown.  Even today our lives are influenced by his energy and work.

He was born in 1707 and lived until 1783.  His life was contemporary with many famous scientists like the Bernoulli family who served as friends and patrons.  This was an era of giants. Bach lived from 1685 to 1750.  Euler was very interested in music and sound.  Euler's works on music are classics.

Euler served at the courts of Catherine the Great in Russia and Frederick the Great in Prussia.  He never entered into politics and concentrated on his work which was Natural Philosophy.  This was a good thing, because he could have lost his head in the various court schemes. 

This term Natural Philosophy encompassed everything known to man.  Our way of thinking about philosophy has warped a bit.  He knew more about more things than anyone alive.  Our modern philosophers can't keep up and so they have spun off discipline after discipline.

His works all of which are yet to be published cover more than 80 volumes at present not mentioning the correspondence he carried on with the leading minds of Europe.  He wrote in Latin, German, French and Russian, so any biographer has a daunting task even to read what he wrote.  At his father's urging he was also a student of theology, Hebrew and Greek.

During his stay with Frederick the Great he was asked or volunteered (probably the former) to tutor by letter the Princess of Anhalt-Dessau, Frederick's niece.  He did so in over 200 letters.

One wonders how they were received and understood.  They are very clear.

Sometimes, when we visit historic places or Museums we are instructed by guides or docents.  It is my impression that many of these do not give credit to the people of the times not our own due to the technology that was NOT available or the perceived education that they received.

If you hear people talk about the lives of Sea Captains and their families for instance, they are thought to have been primitive  men and women with no taste in art or literature and most certainly ignorant in science and mathematics.

This is not true.  If you read what they wrote, you often find that they are more literate and to the point than the products of our modern schools.  Some  were the captains of huge ships.

That is, they were entrusted with the safety of ships, the 747s of the time, crew, passengers, the treasure of cargo and also the education of young people.  These children were apprenticed to them.

Reading Euler's letters to the Princess which are absolutely clear, one wonders about the level of education at the time. Sure, we are talking about a member of a Royal Family, but the stereotype we have is that wealthy women were shuffled off to the care of something akin to a finishing school for royalty and not given a broad based educational opportunity.

So what does the indefatigable Euler attempt to teach this young woman?  How would it compare with our modern high school curriculum?

It's quite a shock to see the way Euler proceeds and what he packs into his letters that poured out 2 per week.  Our own Bluewater School district could not put forth a curriculum like this in high school.  The students would not be prepared for it, nor the teachers to impart it.

What he does is start in a way that is interesting in that he attempts to show his Princess how we know anything, which has always been a central idea in man's quest to understand.

Euler is a very religious man and was unsophisticated in terms of 'table talk'.  Frederick preferred Voltaire over his scientific genius, who because of losing one eye he called "My Cyclops".

Since Euler was so religious as was his father, who was a minister, one is surprised at how he approaches the questions of reality.

He divides knowledge into 3 categories:

  • Revealed knowledge
  • Knowledge built upon the experience and writings of the past.
  • Scientific observation and mathematical truths that we do ourselves. 

In each of these he is careful to instruct the Princess in the nuances of being skeptical about observation and the writings of others.  He even cautions about revealed information.  This is a precursor to the other letters which go deeply into science, mathematics and observation.

One interesting aspect of these observations is that Euler was THE master of infinite series and knew the difficulties of it.  In fact he made his reputation based upon solving a problem in the summation of a certain infinite series called the "Basel Problem".  If he had no

He seems to be preoccupied in the first few letters with a rather personal battle with philosophers of the time who hope to traverse in thought experiments the infinite, which he considered nonsense.

He makes a good point about thinking about Faith and Reason as distinct.  This is a point that much alarms religious fundamentalists today and creates a gulf that has no bridge.

After a few letters establishing how we known anything and how we perceive ourselves as part of the universe he starts in with her 'proper education' 

Today his choice of a start would appear odd.  He evidently knows that she is very smart and she must have been mathematically sophisticated .... probably at our University level and above what we expect out of high school students.  She was desirous of learning more.

It's hard to tell what impact the letters had as they poured off of his pen.   It would be difficult to believe that he would not expect her to learn from them. He was not about to waste his time nor hers.  Later, the letters were published across Europe and even in the US and Canada as a classic expose of Euler's view on basic learning.

He traverses a wide range of topics like electricity, magnetism, optics, telescopes, astronomy, latitude, longitude and on and on...

It's a tour de force of the knowledge of the day and most is valid today.

As Euler was mentored by the Bernoulli family so too did he mentor the Princess.  There is a lesson to be learned.

Our public education system is designed to do nothing other than give the average student an average feel for the world around us.   To build leadership in any subject, we need mentors that can take a good mind and make it brighter.  Do they have to  meet with them all the time?  No, the bright student will take the lead and run with it.

for world news, books, sports, movies ...

Thursday, October 22, 2009