Everyone knows about famous math concepts like the Pythagorean Theorem and Newton’s Laws of Motion, but what about the people who discovered them? I’m sure you’ve heard of Isaac Newton and Pythagoras, but did you know that Newton was known for his bad temper, or that Pythagoras founded his own religion?
Mathematicians are just as important as the concepts that they discovered (not to mention, a lot more interesting). However, there’s a lot that you probably didn’t know about them. Let me tell you about 10 of the smartest – and craziest – mathematicians.
1. Nikola Tesla
First of all, Nikola Tesla is actually Serbian, not American. Also, he was the real inventor of the light bulb, not Thomas Edison. But Tesla, aside from being a genius, was also extremely OCD. Literally. He refused to touch anything even slightly dirty, or anything round, for some reason. Later, he became obsessed with the number 3 and always walked around a building 3 times before entering it. And, at each meal, he used exactly 18 napkins to wipe the utensils before eating.
2. Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton did discover gravity, but there is no proof that an apple fell on his head. However, there are many other odd things about him. He was so smart that he discovered/invented calculus in the same amount of time that it takes for a student to learn it. Newton also thought that he was chosen by God to interpret scripture and foretell the future. Yet, his Principia Mathematica contained a simple mistake that, somehow, no one noticed for 300 years.
If you’ve learned geometry, you’ve probably heard of Pythagoras. Besides creating the Pythagorean theorem, he also founded a numerical religion that espoused pacifism and vegetarianism. It believed that people were reincarnated and that eating beans was a sin. For some odd reason, Pythagoras had an unusual hatred of beans. According to legend, beans were even the cause of his death. While being chased by attackers, he ran into a field of beans. He decided that he would rather die than enter the field, and, sure enough, the attackers killed him as soon as they reached him.
4. John von Neumann
You probably don’t know who this is, which is a shame, because he’s pretty important. John von Neumann did work on the atom bomb and came up with “Mutual Assured Destruction.” He was so valuable to the U.S. military that they kept him under strict armed guard. He also had many qualities that are usually associated with geniuses. He could solve complex equations in his head. He also had “photographic memory” (technically it doesn’t exist, but that’s for another post). Neumann was so intelligent that other Nobel Prize winners wondered if he was “of a species superior to that of man.”
5. Kurt Godel
Kurt Godel was instrumental to the foundation of modern mathematics. He wrote the incompleteness theorems, which, essentially, showed that even logic has its limits. He was an amazing mathematician during his time, but unfortunately, he became a paranoid schizophrenic. After his wife died, he starved to death, believing that everyone was trying to poison him. Godel’s wife had been the only one he had ever trusted.
6. George Dantzig
George Dantzig was only a student when he made his breakthrough. One day, Dantzig arrived late to his statistics class in UC Berkeley. He copied down two problems on the board, and, assuming they were part of the homework, solved them. He emailed them to his professor a few days later, apologizing for turning them in late and saying that they were “a little harder than usual.” What Dantzig didn’t know was that these equations were examples of unsolved problems in statistics. He managed to surpass his classmates and his professor when he was only a student. His story even inspired a scene in the movie Good Will Hunting.
7. Grigori Perelman
Grigori Perelman is known as “Russia’s reclusive genius,” and for good reason. Perelman won the all-Russian math olympiad and added a lot to our understanding of geometry, but his biggest contribution was his proof of one of the seven Millennium Problems. The prize was 1 million dollars, as well as the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics. However, he rejected both of these because he did not want fame and money. Unfortunately for him, he still became famous, and this drove him to quit studying math. He explained, “As long as I was not conspicuous, I had a choice. Either to make some ugly thing, or, if I didn’t do this kind of thing, to be treated as a pet. Now when I become a very conspicuous person, I cannot stay a pet and do nothing. That is why I had to quit.” Now, Perelman has become a recluse and no one knows where he is. It is speculated that he lives in Russia in poverty with his mother.
8. Paul Erdos
Paul Erdos was brilliant. I’m not exaggerating. At the age of four, he could calculate in his head the exact number of seconds someone had lived, given their age. He was one of the most prolific mathematicians of the 1900s. Erdos was extremely peculiar, though. He was basically jobless and homeless, living out of his suitcase. He would show up randomly at his colleagues’ houses, saying “My brain is open,” and proceed to do hard mathematical calculations. He would then leave, after about 1 day. Sexual pleasure revolted him and he hated when anyone touched him. He also called children epsilons, the greek word for small quantities.
9. John Forbes Nash
John Forbes Nash did important work in game theory. He also played an important role in economics and military strategies. In fact, Nash loved his field of work so much that he had a habit of turning ordinary decisions into calculations of advantage and disadvantage. Like Kurt Godel, Nash also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which ruined his relationship with his wife and 2 sons. He started to believe that aliens had made him emperor of Antarctica. Later, Nash became mute and scribbled math equations on blackboards in the math department of Princeton (his old workplace). Until his death, he believed that everything had hidden numerical significance.
10. Evariste Galois
Evariste Galois lived in a time when very little was known in the field of mathematics. Yet, when he was still in his teens, he invented an entirely new branch of math called group theory. He was also very involved in revolutionary politics in France. Once, he was even arrested for threatening the king’s life at a banquet! Galois was very intelligent, but he died very young. He died in Paris at age 20 after losing a duel over a woman. He was so passionate about his work that the night before the duel, he frantically made corrections to his math papers and published them.
Note: My sources are the links that I have embedded in this post. I don’t plagiarize!