Sanderson M. Smith

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This page is dedicated to

(to help in the celebration of French Week)

These French men and women made their way into history books because of their valuable contributions to the development of mathematics.


FRANCOIS VIETE (1540 - 1603)

His most significant contributions were in algebra. He introduced some of the useful notation, including the plus and minus symbols, that we still use today.


RENE DESCARTES (1596 - 1650)

He was actually a philosopher who believed that the world was created with a mathematical design. He introduced the idea of representing points (x,y) in a plane. In all of our math courses, we work in the Cartesian coordinate system.


BLAISE PASCAL (1623 - 1662)

He was both a mathematician and a philosopher. He believed the laws of mathematics represented absolute truths. His name is associated with the famous Pascal's Triangle. Pascal didn't actually create the original triangle, but he discovered many of its amazing properties. (History shows that the Chinese actually had Pascal's Triangle around 1300, some 300 years before Pascal was born.)


PIERRE DE FERMAT (1601 - 1665)

He is one of the co-founders (Descartes was the other) of the branch of mathematics we call analytic geometry. Fermat is most famous for his Last Theorem, which puzzled mathematicians for over 300 years.


EMILIE du CHATELET (1706 - 1749)

Her major work, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, was a French translation and commentaries on Newton's Principia. She also produced a very scholarly manuscript entitled Dissertation on the Nature and Propagation of Fire.



He did a critical analysis of the works of Newton, Euler, and Liebniz and created some of the calculus notation we use today, including symbols such as f'(x) and f''(x) for derivatives. He made contributions to many branches of mathematics.



He made significant contributions to celestial mechanics, probability, differential equations, and geodesy. His analysis of the solar system earned him the title of "The Newton of France."



His most significant contribution represented a rearrangement and simplification of many propositions in Euclid's Elements. His work was well-received in the United States and became a prototype of U.S. geometry books.


SOPHIE GERMAIN (1776 - 1831)

Despite opposition from her own family (women weren't supposed to study mathematics), Germain studied math in her father's extensive personal library, where she was often confined during ten years of French revolutionary violence. She wrote mathematical papers under the pseudonym M. Le Blanc, so readers would not realize she was a woman. She made many contributions to mathematics. Her struggle to become educated is fascinating and well worth a bit of research.


EVARISTE GALOIS (1811 - 1832)

His life story makes him sound like a fictional literary character. His very troubled life ended when he was killed in a duel at age 20. Yet, he is credited with being the founder of a branch of mathematics known as group theory. A subset of this branch of math is called Galois Theory. If you reteach his life, you'll get the "I can't believe this guy was real" feeling.


OK, this last name may surprise you. Indeed, this man was an outstanding mathematician...



"The advancement and perfection of mathematics are intimately connected with the prosperity of the state."

Napoleon was a strong advocate of education and made efforts to ensure that mathematics became a permanent part of the French School curriculum. As a young man, he completed his studies at the Military School of Paris with superior grades in mathematics, earning him the commission of second lieutenant of the Royal Artillery. Recognized for his excellence in mathematics, he was also appointed to the mathematics section of the French National Institute. Prior to Napoleon's time, French schools concentrated mainly on literature and languages. Lagrange, Laplace, and Legendre (mentioned above) flourished under Napoleon.




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