Men of Mathematics Critical Essays

Eric Temple Bell


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 403 words.)