5 Math Battles That Ended in Death
“Ludwig Boltzmann,” reads the opening text of one physics textbook, a photo of which circulated widely in recent years, “who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on his work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.”
But statistical mechanics is a field too grounded to leave all its practitioners unhinged. For true danger, turn to pure mathematics. Any story we tell you about a mathematician is 99-percent certain to end horribly. We can’t guarantee the accuracy of that stat, though, because we aren’t mathematicians, and if we were mathematicians, we’d already be dead right now.
To look just briefly at some people who suffered mathematical ends, consider...
The Duel of Évariste Galois
In Italy, in the 1500s, every so often, one mathematician would challenge another to a duel — a math duel. It would start with one mathematician throwing down the gauntlet with a set of (say) 30 difficult problems. The recipient would respond with a list of 30 problems of his own. The two would then meet in public, before an audience and judges, and each would work at solving everything on the other’s list. The problems were hard but had to be solvable; if he suspected one was impossible, a competitor could always challenge his opponent to solve his own problem, and failure at this meant defeat.
The winner of the duel would get some prize. It might be as small as a dinner, with the loser paying. It might also be a position at a university, while the loser might lose their career altogether and never recover. These duels didn’t end in death, as they involved no physical combat. We just really wanted to talk about them anyway. However, we also promised you stories of death, so let’s jump away from 16th-century Italy and tell you about one duel that really did kill a mathematician. His name was Évariste Galois, and a bullet in the belly killed him in 1832.
History doesn’t record the motive behind this duel. Some theorize that it was over a woman, because Galois was French. Others theorize that it was over his revolutionary politics, because Galois was French. What we do know is that he spent the night before the duel writing out his mathematical testament:
“Later there will be, I hope,” he wrote, “some people who will find it to their advantage to decipher all this mess.” There would be, as Galois is now credited with the basis of a few different branches of algebra.
His testament wasn’t his last words, though. His last words were to his brother, after he was shot. “Do not cry,” he said. “I need all my courage to die at 20.” Yes, he was just 20 years old. At his funeral, people rioted — because they, like Galois, were French.
André Bloch Clinically Killed His Family
Early in his mathematical career, André Bloch (also from France) was drafted into World War I. During a bombing, he fell out of an observation post, sending him into the hospital and out of combat. This gave him plenty of time to think about matters. And so, in November 1917, he ate a meal with his family and murdered them all.
He murdered Georges, his brother, who’d been injured in the war just like him. He murdered his uncle, too, and his aunt. Then he ran into the street and screamed till police came to arrest him.
Bloch later explained to a doctor why he’d acted. “It's a matter of mathematical logic,” he said. “There had been mental illness in my family. The destruction of the whole of the branch had to follow as a matter of course. I began my work at the time of that famous meal. It is not finished yet.” When the doctor disputed this reasoning, Bloch said, “You are using emotional language. Above all, there is mathematics and its laws. You know very well that my philosophy is inspired by pragmatism and absolute rationality. I have applied the example and the principles of a celebrated mathematician from Alexandria, Hypatia.”
We think Bloch may have been correct about mental illness running in his family but wrong about exactly who had it. The city of Paris agreed, committing him for the remainder of his life. He went on make great contributions to mathematics, and he did it all during these 31 years of commitment. He listed his address on his correspondence but did not mention that this building was the Charenton lunatic asylum.
Kurt Gödel Starved Himself for Fear of Being Poisoned
Kurt Gödel was famous for his incompleteness theorems, which we will not describe here, as that would render this paragraph too complete. He wrote all kinds of stuff about math and logic. Then, at the end of his life, he was convinced that one of his rivals was trying to poison him.
In defense of Gödel’s paranoia, a philosopher friend of his had been murdered for real, shot by a former student for unclear reasons. On the other hand, one murder doesn’t mean everyone’s going to be murdered, and Gödel had no real theories on just who was supposedly targeting him. He trusted only his wife, Alice. He ate nothing, save for the food she prepared for him. And what if his wife was the one targeting him, you ask? Well, he also employed her as his food taster, so if she tried anything, she’d be the first to go.
At the end of 1977, Alice was hospitalized. Maybe this convinced him she’d been poisoning the food after all. But it did not convince him the threat was gone. Just the opposite: He now abandoned eating altogether. By January 1978, he weighed just 65 pounds. He starved to death. Maybe this had been the assassin’s plan all along.
Jon Folkman’s Math Therapy Went Poorly
When mathematician Jon Folkman got brain cancer in the 1960s, he became depressed. What if surgery had sapped his superpowers? What if he could no longer perform acts of brilliance, like proving that the chromatic number of G is at most k + 2 in any finite graph where the set of vertices contains a set of size (|S| − k)/2?
Along came friend and fellow mathematician Paul Erdős. He knew just how to cheer his pal up. With math problems! Why, once Folkman solved a few of those, he’d realize he was smarter than ever.
Instead, Folkman shot himself in the head and died. Soon after, his supervisor (not Erdős, some other guy) killed himself as well, guilty that he hadn’t intervened. Maybe those math problems had proven too challenging, rather than affirmingly solvable. Maybe Erdős would have had more luck cheering up his friend with a night of clubbing.
Descartes Died from Teaching the Queen of Sweden
René Descartes is famous for his observation that since you know you have consciousness, you can be sure you really do exist, even if you're sure of nothing else. Many people since him have misinterpreted this to mean that someone must think in order to exist. That confusion just proves how a foundation in mathematics is essential to understanding philosophy.
When Descartes was 53, the court of Sweden hired him to tutor young Queen Christina. These lessons started at 5 a.m. every morning, in the January cold. After just a few of these lessons, Descartes caught pneumonia and died.
His death is often attributed to the lessons, naturally. We don’t really know if that was the cause, however. One other theory says that he died from arsenic poisoning, explaining the otherwise mysterious blood that a doctor observed in his urine. The source of this arsenic, says this theory? A priest had poisoned him by adding it to communion wafers in church.
Good lord. Either this is a fringe theory by some crackpot or Kurt Gödel was right: They’re after us. They’re after us all. We think that’s true, therefore it is.
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