Biographies of Mathematicians

By Susan Corapi, Trinity International University, Deerfield, IL

Biographies are important for building interest in mathematics. By putting a human face on a field that students tend to see as abstract, biographies help young people see what people who study complex math are interested in and how they ask questions that drive their thinking and research.

Biographies of Mathematicians for Young People

When I talk with math majors, they often have difficulty seeing the potential for stories to be teaching tools–the sole exception being story problems that help one learn math. Part of the difficulty seems to lie in the fact that while books dealing with science, social studies and the arts are often inherently telling a larger story, it is hard to recognize a story in something as abstract as an algebraic expression or a geometrical theorem. While students may readily connect with Watson and Crick’s effort to describe the structure of DNA, Harriet Tubman’s journey-stories of freeing slaves or even Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Sheherazade, how does one make connections with or the fact that two angles that form a linear pair are supplementary? Yet even a formula or its application can tell a story–a story that involves a problem and a solution.

There are many wonderful biographies of mathematicians and the problems they attempt to solve. Some outstanding examples are Starry Messenger by Peter Sis describing Galileo’s maps and calculations that demonstrate that the earth revolves around the sun. Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D’Agnese and John O’Brien) chronicles the early years of Leonardo Fibonacci as he discovers Hindu-Arab numerals and the sequence he is famous for. Hidden in the illustrations are objects that incorporate Fibonacci numbers and spirals. A more recent title is Dear Benjamin Banneker by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney, which follows Banneker’s life as a farmer and his efforts to publish the first almanac written by an African American. As he worked his farm he taught himself astronomy through reading and observation. Below are other titles, some of which are favorites with my students.

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark and April Chu. With the emphasis on women in STEM fields, there has been an influx of picture books published on women pioneers in mathematics and science. This biography tells the story of Ada Byron Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, a famous British romantic poet, and her mother, Lady Byron, who loved math and science. Ada filled journals with ideas for inventions and equations, and eventually befriended Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine (a mechanical calculator). Ada developed an algorithm that helped his next invention, the Analytical Engine, solve more complex math problems. This is acknowledged as the first computer program.

The biography, Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science by Diane Stanley and Jessie Hartland, makes a stronger connection between Ada and her famous father. Much of Ada’s education was spurred on by her mother’s desire to suppress any romantic imagination that resembled Ada’s flamboyant and absent father, Lord Byron. While she did share her father’s vivid imagination, Ada’s curiosity was equally fueled by her mother’s interest in science and the industrial revolution.

Caroline’s Comets by Emily Arnold McCully. Caldecott award-winner Emily Arnold McCully (Mirette on the High Wire) chronicles the collaborative partnership between William Herschel and his sister Caroline. Together, they discovered a planet (Uranus) and multiple comets. Caroline’s detailed maps and notes of the celestial bodies were used for decades.

Growing up in Germany in an era when she was expected to be a housekeeper and knit socks, Caroline became a co-inventor and designer of telescopes, a recorder of observations even when her ink froze, and the first paid female scientist in England. McCully balances the expectations placed on 18th-century women in Europe with Caroline’s desire to learn, her curiosity, her willingness to endure cold and back-breaking labor, and her determination to earn her own salary. The narrative briefly describes the math and science she used as she mapped the stars. The story concludes by describing the respect she received as an astronomer in the last decades of her life.

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman and LeUyen Pham. Paul Erdos (pronounced Air-dish) was a math genius who loved prime numbers and is known for his work in number theory and combinatorics. But more than that, he turned mathematical problem-solving into a social activity, traveling around the world and working with any mathematician willing to grapple with the latest puzzle Erdos wondered about. Anyone who collaboratively wrote a paper with him has an Erdos number of 1. And there are many with that number because his enthusiasm for math and collaborative thinking was infectious. Heiliman and Pham portray “Uncle Paul” through words and images that convey Erdos’ zest for keeping his brain “open” to new problems and solutions.

Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs by Helaine Becker and Marie-Eve Tremblay. William Playfair was a Scottish economist and, according to his contemporaries, a bit of a scoundrel. He had many careers, among them inventor, engineer, banker, silversmith and entrepreneur. He was also a scientist, trained by his well-known mathematician brother John Playfair. As a writer and statistician, he sought to present information with clarity and created the line, area, bar and pie charts. He is a pioneer in the field that is now known as infographics (the display of information in a concise and attention-grabbing way). The picture book gives a taste of Playfair’s colorful life. Sidebars give additional information that describes the scientific climate during his life.

Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Revealed by Mary Losure. In my experience, many biographies in chapter book format are written like textbooks and do not engage with the story of someone’s life in a compelling way. So I notice writers who can tell a gripping narrative about someone–writers like Susan Bartoletti, Candace Fleming, Larry Dane Brimner and Steve Sheinkin. Mary Losure, in this biography of Newton, follows in those writers’ footsteps. She uses solid research to document the mathematician’s life, but adds her knowledge of the times to tell his story, including people’s interest in alchemy. Formerly a news journalist but also a writer of fantasy, she delves into a period of history that still had a firm belief in magic and introduces readers to a mysterious man who spent his life wondering how the world worked.

A recent 48-page picture book biography, Newton’s Rainbow: The Revolutionary Discoveries of a Young Scientist by Kathryn Lasky and Kevin Hawkes, describes in short chapters the larger details of Newton’s life and his discoveries of gravity and light along with his development of calculus.

In the hands of author Jim Ottaviani, men and women in the STEM fields are coming alive through award-winning graphic novels. Feynman (illustrated by Leland Myrick) narrates the life of physicist Richard Feynman who was part of the team that developed the atomic bomb. Ottaviani worked as an engineer in nuclear plants, so his interest in that slice of history seems natural. But he has also documents the work of other men and women in science, including the primate studies by the “trimates,” British Jane Goodall, American Dian Fossey, and Lithuanian/Canadian Birutė Galdikas in Primates, illustrated by Maris Wicks. His latest biography, The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded, illustrated by Leland Purvis features British mathematician Alan Turing who was instrumental in breaking the Enigma Code used by the Nazis during World War II.

Einstein by Corinne Maier and Anne Simon. This award-winning graphic novel from France, told in first person, chronicles Einstein’s life. The narrative is humorous, portraying the human side of the famous scientist, but also presents the complex time he lived in and the questions he asked himself about what he observed.

A shorter picture book biography is On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne and Vladimir Radunsky. The narrative emphasizes the “imagining, wondering, figuring and thinking” that occupied Einstein’s life and allowed him to come up with ideas and equations.

Next week I look at novels and picture books that incorporate math and science as part of the narrative.

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