Heroes, Martyrs, and the Rise of Modern Mathematics

Martin Gardner in The New Criterion:

ScreenHunter_03 Jun. 24 10.14 The title of Amir Alexander’s new book (his second) and the beautiful unidentified landscape painting on its jacket, refer to an early dawn duel on a deserted street in Paris. On May 30, 1892. Éveraste Galois, a brilliant young mathematician who pioneered the study of groups, a branch of abstract algebra, was killed in a ridiculous pistol duel over a woman. The duel was so little newsworthy that to this day no one knows for sure who shot Galois in the stomach and left him to die. He was twenty. As soon as Galois was buried, a legend formed about him. He became a martyr unjustly scorned by the French establishment, a scorn that contributed to his poverty and early death. This myth found its strongest expression in a flawed chapter on Galois in Eric Temple Bell’s bestseller Men of Mathematics.

But as Alexander, a science historian who lives in Los Angeles, makes clear, Galois was a thoroughly obnoxious nerd, suffering from what today would be called a “personality disorder.” His anger was paranoid and unremitting. He insulted friends. His ardent Republicanism, with its hatred of the king, sent him twice to prison. He railed against the French establishment, even though it published many of his papers. “If any person was ultimately to blame for the short and tragic life of this brilliant young mathematician,” Alexander writes, “it was inescapably himself.”

More here.