Form and Content

Replete with prickly comments on human behavior, E. T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics presents the lives of forty eminent scientists and thinkers from Greece, France, England, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, and Norway. In twenty-nine chapters, the author covers almost 2,500 years in the history of mathematics.

Bell identifies Archimedes, Sir Isaac Newton, and Carl Friedrich Gauss as the three greatest mathematicians, and for that reason all readers of his book should peruse the chapters on them. When it comes to combining mathematical genius with a life and character of great appeal, however, he cites Blaise Pascal, Niels Henrik Abel, and Évariste Galois as splendid examples.

Bell explains that Pascal was born in Auvergne, France, on June 19, 1623, and died on August 19, 1662. The author praises Pascal for his accomplishments in combinatorial analysis and probability theory and for his elucidation of the “mystic hexagram,” which grew out of his observations in conic sections. What most interests Bell, however, is what he interprets as the terribly baneful influence of the Catholic church on Pascal’s career and peace of mind. Pascal’s entire family, including his father and two sisters, became enthusiastic Jansenists, followers of a right-wing bloc in the church that stressed original sin and grace and that opposed the Jesuits. Out of his absorption in theology came Pascal’s famous Provincial Letters, a prose polemic...

(The entire section is 559 words.)