Plus Blog

January 29, 2008
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The eventful life of Lodovico Ferrari

Lodovico Ferrari was an Italian mathematician famed for solving the quartic equation. Ferrari was born in 1522 in Bologna and at the age of 14 became the servant of Gerolamo Cardan, a celebrated Italian Renaissance mathematician, physician, astrologer and gambler.

Ferrari showed mathematical promise at a young age, and at the age of 20 became a public lecturer in geometry. He was also a player in a great mathematical controversy of the time - who should get credit for the development of solutions for the cubic and quartic equations.

Gerolamo Cardan, partner in controversy.

The controversy includes another notable mathematician of his day, Nicolo Fontana Tartaglia. Tartaglia was an Italian mathematician who was the first to apply mathematics to the investigation of the paths of cannonballs. He had developed his own solutions to the cubic equations, and when Cardan heard of this achievement, nagged a reluctant Tartaglia to show him his work. He succeeded only when he challenged him to a debate and implied that through his influence he could arrange a potentially lucrative contact with the governor of Milan. Tartaglia agreed to tell Cardan his method if Cardan would swear never to reveal it and to only ever write it down in code so that even if he died, nobody would ever discover it. Cardan agreed to this, and Tartaglia enigmatically handed over his formula in the form of a poem.

Several years later however, Cardan and Ferrari saw unpublished work by Scipione del Ferro who had independently devised the same solution as Tartaglia. This work was dated before the work of Tartaglia, and so they decided to break their promise and the include Tartaglia's solution in their published work. Based on Tartaglia's formula, Cardan and Ferrari found proofs for all cases of the cubic and, more impressively, solved the quartic equation - this was reportedly largely due to the work of Ferrari.

Tartaglia then started a campaign of public abuse directed at Cardan and Ferrari, and whilst most of the insults washed off Cardan - who was now established as the world's leading mathematician - Ferrari wrote to Tartaglia challenging him to a public debate. Tartaglia however did not consider Ferrari as worthy of debate - it was Cardan he wanted. Ferrari and Tartaglia traded insults for over a year until 1548 when Tartaglia received an offer of a lectureship in Brescia. To establish his credentials for the post, he was asked to take part in the debate with Ferrari.

Tartaglia was an experienced debater and expected to win. However, by the end of the first day, it was clear that things were not going his way and that Ferrari understood the cubic and quartic equations more thoroughly. Tartaglia decided to flee that night, with victory left to Ferrari. Ferrari's fame soared and he was inundated with offers of employment, including a request from the emperor.

Ferrari was appointed tax assessor to the governor of Milan, and after transferring to the service of the church, retired as a young (aged 42) and rich man. He moved back to his home town of Bologna and in with his widowed sister Maddalena. He died in 1565 of white arsenic poisoning, most likely administered by Maddalena. Maddalena did not grieve at his funeral and having inherited his fortune, remarried two weeks later. Her new husband promptly left her with all her fortune and she died in poverty.

For more information on cubic equations, see Plus articles Mathematical Mysteries: Trisecting the Angle, and Woman joins Adams Family. And for more on Ferrari, see MacTutor

posted by Plus @ 4:22 PM

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January 15, 2008
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

We talk to four researchers from UCL's centre for mathematics and physics in the life sciences and experimental biology (COMPLEX) about the role of maths in such fields as astrobiology, cancer modelling and biology.

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posted by Plus @ 4:21 PM

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December 15, 2007
Saturday, December 15, 2007

We talk to Paul Shepherd about the maths of the Arsenal football stadium and to David Youdan about applied maths in the classroom.

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posted by Plus @ 4:25 PM

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December 12, 2007
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The mathematics of monopoly on More or less

More or Less, BBC Radio 4's program that takes you on a journey through the often abused but ever ubiquitous world of numbers, has recently returned to the airways, and next Monday (17th December 4.30 pm), regular Plus contributors Rob Eastaway and John Haigh are featuring on the program discussing the maths of Monopoly.

Eastaway and Haigh have written for Plus many times on a range of topics including:

Plus spoke to Eastaway about the science of Monopoly, and without giving too much away, Eastaway commented that because the "Go to jail" square is the most frequently visited sqaure on the board, the orange properties are the best investments, as players leaving jail are most likely to then land on these properties.

This means you should invest in Bow Street, Marlborough and Vine Street — or in the US version, St James Place, New York Avenue or Tennessee Avenue.

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December 6, 2007
Thursday, December 06, 2007

Christopher Zeeman Medal for Maths Communication

The Christopher Zeeman Medal, the first award dedicated to recognising excellence in the communication of mathematics has been launched by the London Mathematical Society (LMS) and the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA).

The LMS and IMA want to honour mathematicians who have excelled in promoting mathematics and engaging with the general public. They may be academic mathematicians based in universities, mathematics school teachers, industrial mathematicians, those working in the financial sector or indeed mathematicians from any number of other fields.

Most importantly, these mathematicians will have worked exceptionally to bring mathematics to a non-specialist audience. Whether it is through giving public lectures, writing books, appearing on radio or television, organising events or through an entirely separate medium, the LMS and IMA want to celebrate the achievements of mathematicians who work to inspire others.

In a joint statement, the presidents of the LMS and IMA said, "We are delighted to be able to show how much we need and value mathematicians who can promote their subject successfully. This role is vital to inspiring the next generation of mathematicians as well as helping the wider public to enjoy mathematics."

The award is named after Professor Sir Christopher Zeeman, FRS, whose notable career was pioneering not only in his fields of topology and catastrophe theory, but who was also ground-breaking in bringing his beloved mathematics to the wider public.

Sir Christopher was the first mathematician to be asked to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1978, a full 160 years since they began. His "Mathematics into pictures" lectures, have been cited by many young UK mathematicians as their inspiration. They also led to the creation of the Ri's Mathematics Masterclasses, weekly lectures delivered to schoolchildren across the UK via a network of 50 centres.

Sir Christopher's skill as a communicator has been recognised in the wider community. In 1988, he was the third recipient of the Royal Society's Faraday Prize, awarded annually to a scientist or engineer who has excelled in communicating science to public audiences. His award was made "for the contributions he has made to the popularization of mathematics".

On the announcement of the medal, Sir Christopher said, "I am extremely honoured to have such an important award bear my name. I hope this medal will encourage more mathematicians to see communicating their work to the wider public as a key part of their role."

Nominations for the medal are now invited. To receive a nomination form, please contact:

The Secretary to the Christopher Zeeman Medal London Mathematical Society De Morgan House 57-58 Russell Square London WC1B 4HS

Or email prizes@lms.ac.uk. Forms should be returned by February 2008.

posted by Plus @ 2:39 PM

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At 1:27 PM, Blogger Billlion said...

Zeeman's RI lectures "have been cited by many young UK mathematicians as their inspiration".

I was certainly one! I decided both to study mathematics and to do it at Warwick on the basis of these lectures. There were quite a few of us at Warwick my year with the same story.

Now as a professor of applied mathematics I use maths to solve a wide range of problems from monitoring lung function in intensive care to desinging liquid crystal displays, to detecting threats in airport baggage.

I hope this mdeal encourages those who continue to inspire the next generations of mathematicians.

Bill Lionheart

 
December 1, 2007
Saturday, December 01, 2007

We talk to Nira Chamberlain about his job as a modelling consultant involving aircraft carriers, telecommunication networks, staying slim and speaking French. This podcast accompanies the career interview from issue 45 of Plus.

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posted by Plus @ 4:28 PM

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