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Sunday, August 19, 2018

Eric Temple Bell and the history of mathematics


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons, Carl A. Gist


Eric Temple Bell (1883-1960) was a British mathematician best known for his book Men of Mathematics (1937) about the history of mathematics. Bell was also known for writing science fiction under the pseudonym 'John Taine'. Wikipedia says,


"[Bell] researched number theory; see in particular Bell series. He attempted - not altogether successfully - to make the traditional umbral calculus (understood at that time to be the same thing as the 'symbolic method' of Blissard) logically rigorous." (Wikipedia: Eric Temple Bell, 5.6.21 UTC 15:01)


The rest of this post is some quotes from Bell.


Philosophy of mathematics


"The cowboys have a way of trussing up a steer or a pugnacious bronco which fixes the brute so that it can neither move nor think. This is the hog-tie, and it is what Euclid did to geometry." (The Search for Truth, 1934)


"Guided only by their feeling for symmetry, simplicity, and generality and an indefinable sense of the fitness of things, creative mathematicians now, as in the past, are inspired by the art of mathematics rather than by any prospect of ultimate usefulness." (Quoted in 777 Mathematical Conversation Starters by John Pillis)


"Abstractness, sometimes hurled as a reproach at mathematics, is its chief glory and its surest title to practical usefulness." (The Development of Mathematics, 1940)




"Science makes no pretension to eternal truth or absolute truth; some of its rivals do." (Mathematics: Queen and Servant of Science, 1938)


"The so-called obvious was repeatedly scrutinized from every angle and was frequently found to be not obvious but false. 'Obvious' is the most dangerous word in mathematics." (Mathematics: Queen and Servant of Science, 1938)