A pioneer in math and physics, Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) left a legacy unmatched by few others in his field. The leading mathematician of his day, Euler’s contributions range from mathematical notation to the orbit of comets. (Fittingly, in 2002, an asteroid was named in his honor.)
A prolific writer, his inventive thinking is captured among the many pages of his quarto volumes, of which he wrote at least sixty and perhaps many more. His wide ranging mind applied mathematics to a variety of practical circumstances, from ship-building and engineering to refining longitude measurements.
Background and Life
Ironically, Euler might never have made a contribution to mathematics at all, if not for the lucky coincidence that his father, Paul, a Lutheran pastor, was friends with Johann Bernoulli, at the time the foremost mathematician in Europe. It was assumed that Leonhard would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pastor himself. He was studying theology, Greek, and Hebrew toward that end, and receiving Saturday lessons from Bernoulli.
Perceiving his innate talent, Johann Bernoulli convinced Leonhard’s father to let his son follow this mathematical destiny, and by 1726 Euler had completed a dissertation at the University of Basel on the “propagation of sound.” He then went on to take second place for solving the Paris Academy Prize Problem on the best place to locate masts on a ship. The winner of that contest was a man today considered to be the “father of naval architecture,” Pierre Bouguer. (Euler was not defeated, however, and went on to win the contest twelve additional times during his lifetime.)
After an unsuccessful attempt at landing a position at the University of Basel, Euler followed Bernoulli’s sons to St. Petersburg, Russia, where the ample resources and renowned library of the Academy of St. Petersburg attracted many foreign scholars. Eventually Euler became head of the Mathematics Department, married the daughter of a Russian painter, and settled into a domestic life.
With turmoil in Russia, Euler left to take up a position at the Berlin Academy. There he wrote more than 350 articles and two influential texts on differential calculus and functions. However, it was a series of letters that expounded on his beliefs and knowledge, from religion to science, that became his most popular work. He was forced to leave Berlin as a result of academic posturing, with no less than Voltaire as his nemesis.
Deteriorating eyesight left Euler nearly blind, but no less academically productive. He had a photographic mind and a strong work ethic, and he was able to compensate for any physical challenge. (In 1775, for example, he produced nearly one research paper per week.)
By 1776, Euler had returned to Russia, where he would live out his years, eventually losing his wife (and marrying her sister). He died of a brain hemorrhage, but not before learning about a new planet, Uranus, from Anders Johan Lexell.
Among his many achievements are work in the fields of physics, mathematics, astronomy, optics, and logic. There are too many academic accomplishments to document adequately here; a few examples of Euler’s research include the creation of new mathematical notations, the advancement of infinitesimal calculus, his work in number theory (including the development of Euler’s theorem), work in the field of applied mathematics (including advanced music theory), the creation of Euler diagrams in the field of logic, and in the field of optics, his work in wave theory.
Religion (a legacy of his father and upbringing) continued to play an important role in Euler’s life, and he once countered Denis Diderot’s argument in favor of atheism before the Russian monarchy with a mathematical theorem proving the existence of god, leaving Diderot to depart in embarrassment.
While Leonhard Euler may not be a household name, unlike Euclid, Descartes, or Newton, his contributions have been every bit as important as those belonging to these mathematicians and other Renaissance thinkers, such as Da Vinci. His wide-ranging knowledge and contributions in so many fields have made Euler a very important historical figure.