Role Models in Science and Mathematics Series: Leonhard Euler, One of the Greatest in History
Posted on June 3, 2019 by Ann
“I want to be exceptional,” 14-year old Tammy said about her goals in life.
“I don’t want to be a strawberry. I want to be a durian,” said 13-year old Gil, after he learnt the meaning of the phrase “strawberry generation”.
Tammy did not let the challenges she faces in communication and social interaction stop her from believing in herself. She plans to be a researcher in the future.
Gil hasn’t decided on his career path yet but he prefers the sciences and does not intend to let the challenges he faces in learning stop him from showing grit.
Role Models in Science and Mathematics
For children like Tammy and Gil, learning that there are famous individuals who had conquered their own disabilities and had blazed a trail in the scientific fields for others to follow can be a motivating experience. They should know that they can do what they might have been told can’t be done, and how others have done it.
This is why we have put together a series focusing on inspiring role models in science and mathematics. Today, we are putting our spotlight on Leonhard Euler, a Swiss mathematician, physicist, astronomer, logician and engineer.
This rainy afternoon, I sent a few of my friends and family the same question on WhatsApp: “Do you know who Euler is?”
It turns out that many people do not know who he is. One of my friends even thought that it is a brand for toilets (that’s … Kohler). One exception is Tee, who studied electrical engineering.
Tee: “My dear, it’s pronounced as Euler. And of course lah! That guy is pretty solid! Wikipedia has an entire page called List of things named after Leonhard Euler. That is how OP he is.” (OP means overpowered in gaming terminology.)
Me, coughing from the embarrassment of getting my pronunciation corrected: “So, do you know that he was blind?”
Tee: “Oh, I didn’t know that! That’s very impressive. So the thing is, he did all these work with impossible numbers [blah blah blah]”
Wow. My friend knows about Euler’s achievements but not about his disability! He didn’t even dwell on it. That made me feel quite moved.
Who is Euler?
Euler was born in Switzerland in 1707. He wasn’t born blind. He started having problems with his right eye when he was 31 years old and he was almost completely blind by the time he was 59 years old.
Given that his eyesight started deteriorating only at the prime of his life, he accepted the disability with amazing zen-like calm. He is known to have said “Now I will have fewer distractions.” (Source: Mathematical Circles)
This rings true from the fact that Euler managed to produce half of his ~850 works after his loss of sight. He compensated for not being able to see through his incredible memory and the assistance of his sons and members of the St Petersburg Academy.
The French mathematician Condorcet told a story of how two of Euler’s students had calculated seventeen terms of a complicated infinite series but disagreed on the fiftieth decimal place. Euler, despite his loss of sight, settled the dispute by doing the sum in his head.
What are Euler’s Achievements?
Euler’s list of achievements seems to go on and on.
“His work covered so many areas that he is often “the earliest written reference on a given matter. In an effort to avoid naming everything after Euler, some discoveries and theorems are attributed to the first person to have proved them after Euler.” (Source: Wikipedia)”
Here are just a few examples:
Standardization of mathematical notation
Euler had a great impact on the creation and standardization of common mathematical notation, including e, i , f(x), ∑ , the use of x, y and z as unknown variables and a, b and c as constants, trigonometric functions (sin, cos, and tan), and even π.
I still get nightmares from them. Thanks, Euler, thanks.
Provided solutions that became the basis of new branches in mathematics
He solved several problems that had plagued mathematicians for many years including the Basel problem (basis for number theory) and the Seven Bridges of Königsberg Problem (basis for graph theory and topology).
Provided solutions to other subjects
The Euler-Bernoulli beam equation became “a cornerstone of engineering”. He also contributed to the fields of astronomy, optics, and music.
Had numbers named after him
He is the only mathematician to have not one but two numbers named after him: Euler’s number (e) and the Euler–Mascheroni constant γ (gamma).
Created the most beautiful mathematical formulas
He created famous mathematical equations such as Euler’s Identity ( eiπ = -1), and Euler’s Formula (eix = cosx + isinx).
Euler’s Identity has been described as:
“Our jewel … one of the most remarkable, almost astounding, formulas in all of mathematics.” – Richard Feynman, American physicist
“Like a Shakespearean sonnet that captures the very essence of love, or a painting that brings out the beauty of the human form that is far more than just skin deep, Euler’s equation reaches down into the very depths of existence.” – Keith J. Devlin, British mathematician
In 2016, BBC Earth asked mathematicians and physicists which equations they think are the most beautiful and two of Euler’s equations made it to the top 12 list.
The World of Mathematics and Science
There is no doubt that Euler is one of the greatest mathematicians of all time.
French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace said “Read Euler: he is our master in everything.”
Mathematics professor of Open University Robin Wilson said, “Most of modern mathematics and physics derives from work of Leonhard Euler.” Wilson went on to lament that despite all of Euler’s achievements, many people have never heard of him.
Eli Maor, a math historian called him “the Mozart of mathematics”.
While carrying out my research for this blog post, I read as much as I could about Euler and it struck me that Euler’s loss of sight is often just mentioned in passing. In fact, there are cases where it is not even mentioned at all!
Having written a number of articles on outstanding individuals with special needs for All In, this is very unusual.
There are a few possible reasons for this. It might be because Euler lost his sight only after he had already established a reputation. It might be because seeing how Euler was from the 18th century, there isn’t much information about it.
But wouldn’t it be cool if it is also because his disability simply didn’t matter to the mathematicians, physicists, astronomers, engineers and my friend Tee? When it comes to Euler, it seems to me that they did not see a blind man. Instead, they saw only his contributions.
I asked Tee why he didn’t dwell on Euler’s blindness after I told him about it. He said matter-of-factly, “Huh? But it’s not important.” (Subtext: Impossible numbers are more important.)
It makes me wonder if this version of the world of mathematics and science is possibly one that is closest we have to an inclusive society, where people don’t focus on what we can’t do; instead they focus on what we can do or have done.