Evariste Galois

Evariste GaloisOn this day in 1838, the Romantic period composer Georges Bizet was born. He was only 36 when he died. I’m not that fond of this early work. But his operas are quite good. And then came Carmen. Interestingly, it was not well received when it first came out. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, it was pretty racy. Critics didn’t like the idea that the heroine was a seductress. Even in France at that time, people apparently wanted heroines who threw themselves on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands. But there was also criticism that the opera was tuneless. That’s hard to fathom now because there are at least five different tunes in Carmen that everyone knows. It probably didn’t help that at its premiere, Carmen ran four and a half hours long. Today, it runs a much more manageable two and half hours. Anyway, here is “Habanera” from Carmen. It is delightful:

Other birthdays: anarchist philosopher Max Stirner (1806); artist Pablo Picasso (1881); the great Swedish Post-Impressionist Nils von Dardel (1888); novelist Anne Tyler (72); musician Jon Anderson and whatever he is James Carville are both 69; and the voice of Bart Simpson Nancy Cartwright (56).

The day, however, belongs to the great mathematician Evariste Galois who was born on this day in 1811. He was a pioneering figure in the development of abstract algebra—basically breaking down algebra into structures. Think of it like language where algebra would be the rules of creating a syntactically correct sentence. Abstract algebra would explain the nature of how articles work in those sentences. If you think the math courses you took in college were hard, consider that I think that stuff is easy, but I think abstract algebra is mind boggling. That’s what Galois was doing in his teens two hundred years ago.

He is best know for something else, however. In addition to mathematics, he was a radical republican in France when it was dangerous to be so. And at 20, it looks as though his mouth got the better of him. He ended up in a duel with someone who he felt certain would kill him. The night before the event, he penned a very long letter to Auguste Chevalier that laid out a number of this mathematical ideas. He had published a few papers before this, but this letter is most of his work and it was revolutionary. It wasn’t even published for 14 years after his death.

You can see why mathematicians love the story. It is romantic in the extreme: a brilliant young man produces earth shattering work while he faces certain death. Of course, it is actually tragic. The mind bends to the things he might have done had he lived longer. The Chevalier letter ended, “Ask Jacobi or Gauss publicly to give their opinion, not as to the truth, but as to the importance of these theorems. Later there will be, I hope, some people who will find it to their advantage to decipher all this mess.” He knew he was right, he just wasn’t sure how important it was. And it turned out that it took a while for others to figure it out. The young man deserved the time to do so himself.

Happy birthday Evariste Galois!


I’ve been playing around with a play about Galois’ last night for a few years. It’s very postmodern. The difficulty of the math is a real problem. But I think it can be done. I have, however, never seen a play or movie about a mathematician that wasn’t dreadful. Math isn’t a patina that grows on the surface of a character. It radiates from the core.

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