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The Life of Leonhard Euler (1707-1783)

Leonhard Euler
Artist Jakob Emanuel Handmann’s rendition of Leonhard Euler. Found on Wikipedia.

I’ve started the algebra section in the math curriculum I’m writing–which meant the time had finally come to cover Euler’s life. Leonard Euler has to be one of my favorite mathematicians. This short extract from the curriculum highlights some important lessons his life teaches. – Katherine

It’s fitting that we end our first week looking at algebra by exploring the life of a man God gifted with an amazing mathematical mind. Leonhard Euler (pronounced “oiler”) has been called “the leading mathematician and theoretical physicist of the eighteenth century.”[1] He left his mark on nearly every branch of math. He wrote an enormous amount of mathematical papers—one resource I read estimated that, while working, he wrote around 800 pages a year,[2] and another called him “the most prolific mathematician in history.” [3] In addition to numerous other works, Euler wrote math textbooks, and his presentations of many concepts are still those we use today. We can think of Euler as the man who went back and “polished” the various branches of mathematics, making them easier to use and understand.

Beyond being a brilliant mathematician, however, Euler’s life provides a beautiful illustration of a famous mathematician who truly viewed math as a testimony to God’s faithfulness and served the Lord despite tremendous challenges.

Euler’s father had been a preacher, and Euler himself, wanting to please his father, had studied to become a minister as well. Fortunately, his father eventually realized that God had clearly designed his son to be a mathematician instead of a preacher. I think the lesson Euler’s father had to learn was critical for us all: God made us all different, and that’s a good thing!

After Euler was allowed to pursue mathematics instead of his seminary studies, the Lord opened up a position for Euler in Russia. Although originally hired to conduct medical research for the government-sponsored academy, Euler was quickly able to switch his focus to mathematics.

During his first stay in Russia, the country underwent a period of turmoil. Euler feared speaking much in public for fear of the spies who literally were everywhere. So, unable to do much else, Euler applied himself with all the more diligence to his mathematical pursuits. God used the upheaval to help Euler complete the tasks before him.

Euler’s life had its fair share of trials. While still fairly young (probably his early 30s),[4] Euler lost sight in one eye. Later, he lost sight in his other eye too. But Euler didn’t waste time in self-pity. God had blessed Euler with an amazing capacity to calculate mentally and remember things, so he kept on solving math problems despite not having good eyesight. As one biographer comments,

He was able to do difficult calculations mentally, some of these requiring him to retain in his head up to 50 places of accuracy![5]

Euler was definitely a man with a remarkable intellect. Yet unlike many of the French philosophers of his time, Euler recognized that his intellect needed submitted to God’s authority. One time, a French philosopher named Diderot came to Russia and began spreading his skepticism about God’s existence. The queen asked Euler to combat him.

“Diderot was informed that a learned mathematician was in possession of an algebraical demonstration of the existence of God, and would give it before all the Court, if he [Diderot] desired to hear it. Diderot gladly consented…Euler advanced toward Diderot, and said gravely, and in a tone of perfect conviction: ‘Sir, a+bn/n = x, hence God exists; reply!’”[6]

Diderot was embarrassed and immediately went back to France. Euler’s simple faith, which recognized that math’s very ability to work depends on a faithful, consistent Creator, had baffled the French philosopher.

May we, like Euler, view math’s very ability to work as a testimony to God’s faithfulness and existence and use our intellects for His glory.

[1] Stuart Hollingdale, Makers of Mathematics (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 275.

[2] Ibid.

[3] E..T. Bell, Men of Mathematics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), 139.

[5] William DunHam, Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1990), 210.

[6] E.T. Bell, Men of Mathematics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), 147.

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