Leonhard Euler

Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) was arguably the greatest mathematician of the eighteenth century (His closest competitor for that title is Lagrange) and one of the most prolific of all time; his publication list of 886 papers and books may be exceeded only by Paul Erdös. Euler's complete works fill about 90 volumes. Remarkably, much of this output dates from the the last two decades of his life, when he was totally blind.

Euler's important contributions were so numerous that terms like "Euler's formula" or "Euler's theorem" can mean many different things depending on context. Just in mechanics, one has Euler angles (to specify the orientation of a rigid body), Euler's theorem (that every rotation has an axis), Euler's equations for motion of fluids, and the Euler-Lagrange equation (that comes from calculus of variations). The "Euler's formula" with which most American calculus students are familiar defines the exponentials of imaginary numbers in terms of trigonometric functions. But there is another "Euler's formula" that (to use the modern terminology adopted long after Euler's death) gives the values of the Riemann zeta function at positive even integers in terms of Bernoulli numbers. There are both Euler numbers and Eulerian numbers, and they aren't the same thing. Euler's study of the bridges of Königsberg can be seen as the beginning of combinatorial topology (which is why the Euler characteristic bears his name).

Though born and educated in Basel, Switzerland, Euler spent most of his career in St. Petersburg and Berlin. He joined the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1727. In 1741 he went to Berlin at the invitation of Frederick the Great, but he and Frederick never got on well and in 1766 he returned to St. Petersburg, where he remained until his death. Euler's prolific output caused a tremendous problem of backlog: the St. Petersburg Academy continued publishing his work posthumously for more than 30 years. Euler married twice and had 13 children, though all but five of them died young.

Euler's powers of memory and concentration were legendary. He could recite the entire Aeneid word-for-word. He was not troubled by interruptions or distractions; in fact, he did much of his work with his young children playing at his feet. He was able to do prodigious calculations in his head, a necessity after he went blind. The contemporary French mathematician Condorcet tells the story of two of Euler's students who had independently summed seventeen terms of a complicated infinite series, only to disagree in the fiftieth decimal place; Euler settled the dispute by recomputing the sum in his head.

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