Saturday, September 27, 2014

e and Euler

Thanks to Norwin/Destroy All Onions for a tip off the other night that e and Euler were being features on Radio 4’s In Our Time.

My first PC in work – some twenty years ago – was a 486 (50 MHz) machine. In those days, staff could choose their own hostname, and since there was already a series of computers named after mathematicians on the floor, I added to that list and plumped for Euler.

Euler is long dead – both the mathematician (died in 1783) and my first PC (which is no doubt rusting away and polluting a landfill).

Leonhard Euler was born in 1707 and schooled in Basel (Switzerland). He was nearly pushed into being a pastor, but went into mathematics, worked and married in St Petersburg (Russia), and transferred to Berlin before later returning to St Petersburg.

Married to Katharina, they had 13 children; however only 5 survived beyond childhood. After her death, he married Katharina’s half sister Salome Abigail. He became almost blind in his right eye, developed a cataract in his left, before becoming almost totally blind.

Not an easy life, but a tremendously prolific and productive one mathematically.

No pun intended, but Euler was a polymath, curious about nearly every discipline of mathematics in those days. He provided the solution to the Seven Bridges of Königsberg problem. He also contributed to physics and astronomy. To modern students of maths, he’s probably best known for Euler’s formula and the beautifully elegant Euler’s identity.

(Beautiful since it combines addition, multiplication, exponents, equality as well as five basic constants 0, 1, e, π and i.)

As I type this up I realise that I’m bound to have mentioned Euler on the blog before. And sure enough he got a mention on his 300th birthday back in April 2007. In that post I explained that Euler’s Identity is:
… the only piece of mathematics that I’ve had to prove from first principles since graduating from university. During an afternoon coffee break ten years or so ago, a summer student in work (who did engineering rather than applied maths), wondered how it could be proved. One paper napkin later, happy student. But my maths has faded, so don’t ask for a repeat performance.

Thankfully lots of other (non-mathematical) parts of by three year degree have come in useful during twenty years of employment in the IT industry: mostly social skills and tea drinking, though debugging programmes and learning Unix for fun might feature too.

You can find out more about the history and simplified explanations of the mathematics behind Euler’s number and the man himself by listening to this week’s episode of In Our Time. It was a great listen while mowing the lawn for the last time this year.

Melvyn Bragg was joined by Colva Roney-Dougal, June Barrow-Green and Vicky Neale for the episode that I suspect the presenter will glad to put behind him!

Google marked Euler’s 306th birthday with a doodle.


Stephen Barnes said...

In those days, our group plumped for names of Indian Dishes. Janet T had "Korma", Simon J had "Balti", Benters had "Jalfrezi" and James had "Bhuna" (I think that was the right order) and I had "Vindaloo".

Our student Sean had "Phall", which after an email to the centre lead our illustrious leader Charlie to issue the immortal demand: "Who the hell is sean@phall?" thinking it was something it wasn't!

Alan Meban said...

Great minds think alike - Mathsbank blogged about the show too.