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Eric Temple Bell

from Vanamonde #686 (2006)

Such are the debits in the account of Greek mathematics with time. They are heavy enough; but beside the credits, they are of little moment. It has fallen to the lot of but one people, the ancient Greeks, to endow human thought with two outlooks on the universe neither of which has blurred appreciably in more than two thousand years. From all the mass of their great achievements these two, each of superlative excellence, may be exhibited here by themselves, not to diminish their magnitude by a crowd of lesser masterpieces, all great but not the greatest.

The first was the explicit recognition that proof by deductive reasoning offers a foundation for the structures of number and form.

The second was the daring conjecture that nature can be understood by human beings through mathematics, and that mathematics is the language most adequate for idealizing the complexity of nature into apprensible simplicity [p. 55].

All the rest is a matter of tactics.... unless the mathematical method evolves into another, as distinct from what mathematics is now as was the empiricism which preceded mathematics from mathematics [p. 594].

E.T. Bell, The Development of Mathematics
(2nd ed. 1945)

Eric Temple Bell (1883-1960) was a professor of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology. He published two hundred papers; he won the Maxime Bôcher Prize for research in pure mathematics; he was President of the Mathematical Association of America. The Cal Tech Undergraduate Mathematics Research Prize was named after him, and certain numbers in combinatorics, the study of taking x things y at a time; Martin Gardner gave those an installment of "Mathematical Games", Scientific American, May 1978, quoting Poe's 1849 poem and genially suggesting they be called Temple Bells. Under the name John Taine this mind produced a dozen s-f novels.

His biographer Constance Reid (The Search for E.T. Bell, 1993) confirms in passing Harry Warner's remark, All Our Yesterdays ch. X (1969; Siclari ed. 2004, p. 319), that Taine was invited to the 1948 West Coast Science Fantasy Conference (Westercon I, Los Angeles, 5 Sep) but at the last minute canceled for the death of a close friend; that was Leoda Stout, September 2nd (Reid, p. 331). I have read White Lily (1930; republ. with H. Bok jacket & interior decorations as The Crystal Horde, 1952) and Seeds of Life (1931), ingenious, vigorous, with science integral, and no small element of poetry.

The two great ideas he acknowledges above made the title of Mathematics, Queen and Servant of Science (1951). Besides his immediately professional work he left as masterpieces Development and Men of Mathematics (1937). There and in his s-f it must be said he was irascible. He had grounds; we still fret over Spaceship Earth the ship of fools; but recurrent grinding of even a needful ax is best kept offstage by creativity and magnanimity alike. Above all, and through the clouds, in Development and Men especially, shines an amazing power to review, grasp, and state, the power of a writer, the power to tell.