Famous and not so famous Brits (part4)
John Napier (1550-1617), “Scottish Archimedes”
In the Edinburgh suburb of Merchiston there is a small campus of modern college buildings. Constructed in the 1960s to house a technical college, the complex blends fairly well with the Victorian residential streets around it; but one of its buildings stands out, contrasting sharply with the typical twentieth-century glass and concrete of its neighbours. This ancient stone structure is Merchiston Tower (or Merchiston Castle), built in the fifteenth century; it is the birthplace of John Napier (1550-1617), from whom the college – now a part of Napier University – took its name.
John Napier was born into a noble family and inherited the title Laird (Lord) of Merchistoun. He is said to have studied at St. Andrews University in his teens; however, he left to pursue his studies in mainland Europe, as was customary for the wandering scholars of the period. He may have studied in Flanders, Paris or Bordeaux, although precise details of this stage of his life are not known. He returned to Scotland in 1572, married his second wife and began to produce the works for which he is remembered. His main interest was in mathematics, and his work Mirifici lograrithmorum canonis descriptio (1614) made known his invention of logarithms, upon which many other sciences have based their mathematical processes. He also pioneered methods of multiplication using sets of numbered rods, known as “Napier’s Bones”.
His mathematical discoveries were landmarks in the history of the subject, but he and his family were also caught up in the political turbulence of sixteenth-century Scotland. He was a landowner who pioneered agricultural improvements on his estates while some of his other interests were more typical of his time. They included theology (he became a strict Calvinist with “apocalypticist” convictions, inspired by the Book of Revelation), astrology, alchemy, magic and the occult, and some believed him to be a sorcerer, partly because of his inventions. Some of these, like burning mirrors, to be used in burning enemy ships, seem bizarre to modern readers. He was also known to be in contact with a German alchemist. In addition, his father became Scotland’s “master of the mint” in 1582, so an interest in the making of gold would be unsurprising. Yet, due to the loss of a large number of family papers in the early nineteenth century, much about the life of this “early modern Scottish Archimedes”, as one writer calls him, remains unknown.
NOTE: If you’d like to do some maths in English with your students, go to Factmonster maths flashcards and let your students play: http://www.factmonster.com/math/ flashcards.html
Colin Ellis, NaukaBezGranic