The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Mathematicians have dramatic, moving, tumultous lives too. With the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, John Forbes Nash's brilliance and battle with mental demons has become common knowledge. The cognoscenti are aware, similarly, of Kurt Gödel and Georg Cantor, deeply troubled men suffering from psychological failings. The popular view of the egghead, shut away from reality and thinking theorems, may therefore reflect only some of the field's practitioners.

The dashing Évariste Galois who died in 1832 in a duel aged twenty has the romantic reputation of having spent the night before his fight noting down furiously the path-breaking discoveries he had made in algebra. Unfortunately for him, his fiery temper dragged him into altercations with the authorities, and his republican tendencies earned him the wrath of the law. His lack of organisation occulted his brilliance and he was rejected from the best schools of mathematics, despite his obvious abilities. A rebuffed love affair and a duel in the honour of the woman led to his untimely and wasteful death. But there is ample coverage of his life (see here and here), and so we needn't go into it in this post.

Much much before, there was the sixteenth century Italian gambler, astronomer, doctor and mathematician of genius named Girolamo Cardano. When he wasn't participating in mathematical contests against other mathematicians, solving cubic and quartic equations, he was wenching and curing his way across Europe. His intuitive understanding of the laws of probability, which he described in his book Liber de Ludo Aleae, meant that in general he won more games than he lost. The book (as all his other works) was a bestseller, his life less fortunate. His elder son was tortured and executed for murdering his wife after she mocked him for not being the father of their children. His younger son turned out to be a wastrel and a thief who stole from him. His own reputation as the best doctor in Europe couldn't save him from the tragedies of his life.

The incredible life of Alexander Pell is where drama, politics, vengeance and split personalities achieve their highest manifestation. At the rather late age of forty, the Russian immigrant Pell gained a doctorate in mathematics from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Pell was recommended by his tutor to the newly established University of South Dakota built in the frontier town of Vermillion. The recommendations said that Pell was a first-class mathematician who could command a good position almost anywhere in the east were it not for his Russian brogue, to which the reply came: "Send your Russian mathematician along, brogue and all."
He was a success, an immensely popular teacher and a good friend to his students. He and his wife were showered with affection in Vermillion, and he himself performed good quality research. When his wife died in 1908, he moved to Chicago where he married one of his students, Anna Johnson, who later became known as one of America's top mathematicians. He died in 1921 and his wife created a fund that, to this day, pays a modest scholarship to students at Vermillion's university. All along, the genial man was beloved by everyone. Nobody sought to find out what his earlier life in Russia had been, and why he had emigrated.

In The Degaev Affair: terror and treason in tsarist Russia, Richard Pipes describes the life of Sergei Degaev, terrorist, anarchist, abettor to the assassination of Czar Alexander II, police informer and treacherous friend. A thoroughly shifty man, he escaped his lower middle-class origins by joining the anarchist group The People's Will, where he was embittered by his failure to rise to the top of the organisation. Arrested by the police for conspiracy, he turned informer and secured his freedom by betraying his former colleagues. When they later came after him for revenge, he averted disaster by helping them murder the chief of the Czarist secret police. Later, he emigrated to America and changed his name to Alexander Pell.

What a life of contrasts! A ruthless self-serving murderer in his youth, Degaev appears to have completely changed his personality around when he made a new life for himself in the USA. Was he schizophrenic? Or, as Peregrine Worsthorne wonders in his review of the book, was Degaev's character in his twenties, moulded by the exigencies of existence in Russia, deliberately jettisoned once he matured and no longer had to fight for survival? Or was he trying to atone in later life with good works for the villainy he had committed in his youth?


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