Monday, September 25, 2006

Mathematics as blood sport

I for one am glad that we have left the challenge era of mathematics far behind us. From Wikipedia's entry on the cubic equation:

In 1530, Niccolo Tartaglia (1500-1557) received two problems in cubic equations from Zuanne da Coi and announced that he could solve them. He was soon challenged by Fiore, which led to a famous contest between the two. Each contestant had to put up a certain amount of money and to propose a number of problems for his rival to solve. Whoever solved more problems within 30 days would get all the money.

Tartaglia received questions in the form x3 + mx = n, for which he had worked out a general method. Fiore received questions in the form x3 + mx2 = n, which proved to be too difficult for him to solve, and Tartaglia won the contest.

Later, Tartaglia was persuaded by Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576) to reveal his secret for solving cubic equations. Tartaglia did so only on the condition that Cardano would never reveal it. A few years later, Cardano learned about Ferro's prior work and broke the promise by publishing Tartaglia's method in his book Ars Magna (1545) with credit given to Tartaglia. This led to another competition between Tartaglia and Cardano, for which the latter did not show up but was represented by his student Lodovico Ferrari (1522-1565). Ferrari did better than Tartaglia in the competition, and Tartaglia lost both his prestige and income.

You have to wonder: when you lay down a mathematical challenge, do you throw a quill at the feet of your rival ?


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