Surely there are more important things that unite mathematicians with those in the humanities, but to me one of the big ones is that we will go well out of our way to visit the graves and monuments of our famous predecessors.
I’ve seen so many slides of professors next to Gauss’s statue with his 17-pointed star; or poor Jacob Bernoulli’s plaque, where the engraver mistakenly added an Archimedian spiral instead of the logarithmic spiral requested by the deceased. If there’s a better way to torture a mathematician in the afterlife, I don’t know it (as an aside: I’ve always been oddly commitment-phobic about putting comics on my office door, but this one finally pushed me over).
A couple years ago, my physicist husband and I had a day in Dublin. Of course we saw all the usual tourist sights too, but we had our eyes on one stop in particular. My first time driving a manual transmission on the “wrong” side of the road brought us to the Broom Bridge, in a completely unremarkable suburb. We almost missed it entirely, and wandered around a for awhile before finding the stairs to a little path along the canal, where a woman sat knitting in the sunshine. I’m not sure if she knew why two sleepy Americans stopped for a photo and then got back into the rented Peugeot, but she was too polite to say anything.
This winter, we made a trip to Scotland, with a longer list of stops. My husband wanted photos with James Watt, James Dewar, Lord Kelvin, and a statue of Maxwell if we got around to it (we didn’t). I had John Napier, Colin MacLaurin, and James Stirling on my list, and rounded out my collection with Adam Smith becau
se close enough, right?
John Napier, discoverer (inventor?) of the logarithm, is buried in St. Cuthbert’s church beneath Castle Rock in Edinburgh. Sadly, the church itself was closed the day we were there so I didn’t get a good look at his plaque, but the churchyard had a nice sign bragging about him. James Dewar was also somewhere around there, but we couldn’t find him. We’ll pour out some liquid nitrogen for him next time we get a chance.
Maclaurin and Stirling were up the hill in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Maclaurin has a place of honor on the side of the church itself. It’s tough to see my picture in the fading Scottish winter sun (at probably 4pm), but there’s a nice photo and video from someone else’s walking tour here. My husband fondly remembered an old Irish professor of his who insisted on referring to any Taylor series as a “Maclaurin series centered somewhere other than 0.”
Stirling was harder to find, as unsurprisingly there’s more than one Stirling buried there, but we eventually found the plaque dedicated to the “famous Venetian mathematician.” I didn’t know he’d worked in Venice, but researching that made me realize the guy led quite an interesting life: expelled from Oxford for collaborating with the Jacobites, he went to Venice and became a professor. While there he discovered a trade secret of the Venetian glassblowers and fled to London with Newton’s help before he was assassinated. And then he surveyed the Clyde to help make Glasgow a seaport just for good measure.
It was a lovely trip with a few other nerdy diversions that will probably make it into a column or a class or a math tea at some point. And it reminded me that I should really hunt down a few of my academic ancestors closer to home: after all Emmy Noether is just up the road from me at Bryn Mawr. Student AWM chapter road trip?