Math circles primed for idol’s 300th birthday

PHILADELPHIA (MCT) – Move over, Ben Franklin. Your 300th anniversary celebration has passed. It’s Leonhard Euler’s turn. Who? You know, Leonhard Euler (pronounced Oiler), one of the world’s most prolific mathematicians and “intellectual ancestor” of Sudoku, a logic puzzle of squares that has become highly popular in recent years.

Mathematics professors and teachers worldwide are giddy over the forthcoming tercentenary of the birth of this numbers hero whose work is important in engineering, physics and astronomy; in Euler’s homeland, Switzerland, they’re coming out with a comic book about his life, called “Leonhard Euler: A Man To Be Reckoned With.”

“Euler is to math as Mozart is to music,” says Muhlenberg College math professor William Dunham, who has written a book on Euler.

The Mathematical Association of America is planning celebrations throughout the year, including an overseas tour for educators in July to cities where he lived.

The association also is publishing Euler books, scheduling talks at professional meetings, and printing posters hailing “the year of Euler,” which are being mailed to college math departments around the country. It’s unprecedented hoopla for this usually stoic group.

“To a large extent, that’s how mathematicians celebrate. Deep down, they’re not party dolls, really and truly. They celebrate by bringing his works to the attention of those who might not know as much about him as they would like him to know,” said Don Albers, editorial director for the association. “He’s a hero to mathematicians of the current generation as well as past generations.”

There will be birthday cakes and parties.

There will be Euler “Jeopardy!”

The Swiss consulates in the United States have invited Euler experts to visit and host Euler math activities for groups of schoolchildren.

And, of course, Euler will be the feature of the year at the association’s annual Math Fest this summer.

Among those planning a celebration and talks on Euler is Muhlenberg in Allentown, Pa.

Euler wrote more than 25,000 pages with theorems and formulas, while coping with blindness in one eye most of his life and total blindness in his later years, noted Dunham.

“No matter what part of mathematics people are in, they can trace the roots of it or a big part of the development of it to this blind Swiss guy who lived back in the 18th century,” said Dennis DeTurck, dean of the college of arts and sciences and professor of mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Euler discovered how water flows. His work was key in the construction of ships so they could move faster.

He designed the perfect shape for teeth on a gear.

He developed the equations needed to make accurate lunar tables to determine longitude at sea.

He calculated the moment of inertia, a key principle in the design of machines.

And his fans like to note that he was a nice guy and an adept writer – another feat uncommon for mathematicians.

Euler was born on April 15 – a date befitting a math guy, although he couldn’t have known it at the time.

“Everybody else thinks of April 15 as tax day, but if you study Euler, you think of it as Euler’s birthday,” said Rob Bradley, a math professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y.

Bradley, president of the Euler Society, which was formed in 2001, said Euler’s work is considered by some to be the “intellectual ancestor” of Sudoku.

Two Dartmouth University graduate students took precious time away from their doctoral studies to upload most of Euler’s works in their original form online. They have put up 830 pieces, more than 20,000 scanned pages.

The comic book, a first of its kind for its Swiss publisher, offers a lighthearted portrayal of Euler’s life, starting from his precocious youth to his boredom in school through his inventive years. Mathematicians caught their first glimpse of the comic at the association’s winter conference in New Orleans earlier this month.

The German version was published six months ago and has become popular, said Tom Grasso, editor of Computational Sciences and Engineering, a publication out of Birkhauser Boston, whose Switzerland base has released the comic book.

It was so popular that the publisher has done an English version, which will be available in the United States next month.

“It’s a general-audience kind of book. A lot of people are buying it for kids and grandkids,” Grasso said.

Professors are coveting their Euler posters.

“Not only did I receive mine, but I asked all of my friends if I could have theirs,” said an excited Ed Sandifer, a math professor at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, who plans to create an Euler “Jeopardy!” game for mathematicians.

A two-week Euler trip in July will take participants to Euler’s birthplace in Basel, Switzerland, as well as St. Petersburg and Berlin, where he spent his working life.

“For the whole Cold War, his original work was trapped on the other side of the Iron Curtain. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, suddenly all of this was available for us in the West,” Sandifer said.

Euler scholars won’t find themselves in such a frenzy again until 2033, the 250th anniversary of his death.

“Some people are already making plans for that,” said Sandifer. “The editors are trying to identify the people who know Euler now who will still be available to edit books about Euler that year.”

It’s not overplay, defended Sandifer: “We care about this even more than we cared about Einstein’s 100th birthday or Newton’s birthday.”