Bell explains that his intention in Men of Mathematics is to approach the great ideas of mathematics through the lives of many of the people who have been responsible for them. Therefore, he has chosen his subjects according to two criteria: the significance of their life’s work and the “human appeal” of their personal lives. Whenever these criteria have overlapped, he has emphasized his subject’s character and personality because it is those traits in his geniuses with which he is primarily concerned.
Bell himself emerges as an interesting personality. He opens Men of Mathematics with three pages of epigraphs full of bite and flavor, such as Karl Weierstrass’ remark that “a mathematician who is not also something of a poet will never be a complete mathematician.” Moreover, the author is quick to offer opinions on the state of the world and human behavior. For example, in telling the story of Newton’s appointment as Master of the Mint, he cannot resist a personal observation: “The crowning imbecility of the Anglo-Saxon breed is its dumb belief in public office or an administrative position as the supreme honor for a man of intellect.”
Therefore, Bell’s style is well garnished by the opinions of what must have been a rather prickly personality. Anyone reading the account of Pascal’s involvement with the Catholic church, for example, should remember that not everyone will agree with Bell’s judgment on...
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Because of the excellent readability of Bell’s accounts of the lives of his chosen mathematical geniuses, even for readers who are not mathematicians, Men of Mathematics has become a classic of the genre of young adult biography. Nevertheless, certain features of Bell’s temperament and point of view should be considered by the alert teacher. For example, all of his subjects are white Europeans and all are male except for Sonja Kowalewski. The author’s selection caused no stir in 1937, when Men of Mathematics was first published, but such a list would probably require some modification for a more modern audience. Some critics might well ask why he has not included chapters on the many prominent Indian and Arab mathematicians. Furthermore, Bell’s text could be supplemented with a discussion of some important twentieth century mathematicians, such as John von Neumann.