Eric Temple Bell
1931 drawing of Eric Temple Bell
|Born||7 February 1883|
Peterhead, Scotland, UK
|Died||21 December 1960 (aged 77)|
Watsonville, California, U.S.
Columbia University (Ph.D.)
|Known for||Number theory|
Ordered Bell numbers
|Awards||Bôcher Memorial Prize (1924)|
|Institutions||University of Washington|
California Institute of Technology
|Doctoral advisor||Frank Nelson Cole|
|Doctoral students||Howard Percy Robertson|
Eric Temple Bell (7 February 1883 – 21 December 1960) was a Scottish-born mathematician and science fiction writer who lived in the United States for most of his life. He published non-fiction using his given name and fiction as John Taine.
Bell was born in Peterhead, Aberdeen, Scotland, but his father, a factor, relocated to San Jose, California, in 1884, when he was fifteen months old. The family returned to Bedford, England, after his father's death, on 4 January 1896. Bell returned to the United States, by way of Montreal, in 1902.
Bell was educated at Bedford Modern School, where his teacher Edward Mann Langley inspired him to continue the study of mathematics, Stanford University, the University of Washington, and Columbia University (where he was a student of Cassius Jackson Keyser). He was part of the faculty first at the University of Washington and later at the California Institute of Technology.
He researched number theory; see in particular Bell series. He attempted--not altogether successfully--to make the traditional umbral calculus (understood at that time to be the same thing as the "symbolic method" of Blissard) logically rigorous. He also did much work using generating functions, treated as formal power series, without concern for convergence. He is the eponym of the Bell polynomials and the Bell numbers of combinatorics. In 1924 he was awarded the Bôcher Memorial Prize for his work in mathematical analysis. He died in 1960 in Watsonville, California.
During the early 1920s, Bell wrote several long poems. He also wrote several science fiction novels, which independently invented some of the earliest devices and ideas of science fiction. Only the novel The Purple Sapphire was published at the time, using the pseudonym John Taine; this was before Hugo Gernsback and the genre publication of science fiction. His novels were published later, both in book form and serialised in magazines. Basil Davenport, writing in The New York Times, described Taine as "one of the first real scientists to write science-fiction [who] did much to bring it out of the interplanetary cops-and-robbers stage." But he concluded that "[Taine] is sadly lacking as a novelist, in style and especially in characterization."
Bell wrote a book of biographical essays titled Men of Mathematics (one chapter of which was the first popular account of the 19th century woman mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya), which is still in print. He originally wrote it under the title The Lives of Mathematicians, but the publishers, Simon and Schuster, cut about a third of it (125,000 words), and, in order to tie in with their book Men of Art (by Thomas Craven), gave it the title Men of Mathematics which he did not like. The book inspired notable mathematicians including Julia Robinson,John Forbes Nash, Jr., and Andrew Wiles to begin a career in mathematics. However, historians of mathematics have disputed the accuracy of much of Bell's history. In fact, Bell does not distinguish carefully between anecdote and history. He has been much criticized for romanticizing Évariste Galois. For example: "[E. T.] Bell's account [of Galois's life], by far the most famous, is also the most fictitious." His treatment of Georg Cantor, which reduced Cantor's relationships with his father and with Leopold Kronecker to stereotypes, has been criticized even more severely.
While this book was under printing, he also wrote and had published another book, The Handmaiden of the Sciences. Bell's later book Development of Mathematics has been less famous, but his biographer Constance Reid finds it has fewer weaknesses. His book on Fermat's Last Theorem, The Last Problem, was published the year after his death and is a hybrid of social history and the history of mathematics.
Most fiction writers are, after all, primarily fiction writers", he [Glenn Hughes, professor of English literature] wrote of Bell. "Some of them may show a trifle more finesse in plot handling or characterization, but none of them surpasses Bell in grandness of conception or accuracy of detail. One has always the uncanny feeling that [he] is dealing in probabilities, and that many of his most extravagant dreams are but pre-visions of nightmares in store for the human race.
The only idea of real mathematics that I had came from Men of Mathematics. In it I got my first glimpse of a mathematician per se. I cannot overemphasize the importance of such books about mathematics in the intellectual life of a student like myself completely out of contact with research mathematicians.
By the time I was a student in high school I was reading the classic "Men of Mathematics" by E. T. Bell and I remember succeeding in proving the classic Fermat theorem about an integer multiplied by itself p times where p is a prime.
The fact that Wiles was stimulated in childhood by E. T. Bell's romantic personalized anecdotal book Men of Mathematics to nurse an ambition to solve the problem Fermat's Last Theorem is in itself an index of the power which a certain view of the history of mathematics can exercise.
The Development of Mathematics still strikes [topologist Albert W.] Tucker - among books on the history of mathematics - 'as the most interesting as far as I am concerned.' Unlike Men of Mathematics, which he finds 'almost fiction,' The Development of Mathematics was intended for an essentially professional audience.
Thirty years later it [The Last Problem] was reissued by the Mathematical Association of America with an introduction by Underwood Dudley - who had some difficulty in describing it. 'It is not a book of mathematics. Pages go by without an equation appearing, and in mathematics books you are not told such things as that the ancient Spartans were "as virile as gorillas and as hard (including their heads) as bricks"...It is an unusual book.' Dudley concluded - as unusual as the man who had written it.