Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A shrivelled gouty old man

A pleasant, chatty little man was Joseph Liouville, a French mathemetician born two centuries ago today. He wasn’t a diary man, though, as far as I know; but another mathematician, Thomas Archer Hirst, was, and he made a habit of writing about his academic peers.

Liouville was born on 24 March 1809, exactly 200 years ago today. His father, an army captain who survived Napoleon’s wars, moved his family to Toul in northeast France, where Joseph attended school. He went on to study at École Polytechnique, France’s foremost engineering school, later becoming a professor at the same institution. His career also saw him appointed chair in mathematics at the Collège de France and a chair in mechanics at the Faculté des Sciences.

He worked in a number of different fields in mathematics, including number theory, complex analysis, differential geometry and topology, but also mathematical physics and even astronomy, Wikipedia says. He is remembered particularly for Liouville’s theorem, but other procedures also carry his name - the Sturm-Liouville theory and the Liouville-Arnold theorem for example - as does a crater on the moon. He is said to have published about 400 papers and notes, more than 200 of them on the theory of numbers alone.

In 1836 he founded Journal de Mathématiques Pures et Appliquées, which did much for mathematics in France throughout the 19th century, and is still around today. He also dabbled in politics for a while. More information can be found at Wikipedia and at MacTutor (a website run by the School of Mathematics and Statistics at St Andrews university).

Thomas Archer Hirst, an English mathematician born two decades after Liouville in 1830 in Yorkshire, studied at the University of Marburg, Germany, and remained on the Continent for most of the 1850s. He then returned to England, first to teach at University College School, London, and subsequently to take up a physics professorship at University College as well as the mathematics chair. In 1873, he was appointed Director of Studies at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. According to Wikipedia, he was an active member of the governing councils of the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the London Mathematical Society.

Hirst was also a diarist and kept a personal record for most his life. His notebooks and diaries are archived at the Royal Institution, London, but, as far as I know have never been published. However, the MacTutor website has filleted out a collection of quotes about Hirst’s mathematician peers, including two about Liouville twenty years apart.

18 Nov 1857
‘He is a pleasant, chatty little man with whom I soon felt at perfect ease. The only blemish I observed in him was an occasional unmeaning giggle.’

18 May 1879
‘A little shrivelled gouty old man [Liouville] has become and very garrulous. It was with difficulty I broke away from him.’

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