Oliver Heaviside

Oliver Heaviside, a British mathematical physicist, was born May 18, 1850. Heaviside had a rough life; he was partially deaf from a childhood bout with scarlet fever, and his parents could not afford to keep him in school after he was sixteen, so he had no formal education at all. Yet he chose to pursue an interest in the mathematics of electromagnetism, stimulated by an encounter with James Clerk Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873) and a desire to understand it. Fortunately he was very intelligent, and he had an uncle-in-law, Charles Wheatstone, a famous electrical engineer, who noticed and encouraged the young man’s work and got him a job in the telegraphy business. It took Heaviside years to master Maxwell’s book, but when he did, he had a better comprehension of it than most of his contemporaries. Heaviside invented something called vector calculus, and with it he was able to reduce Maxwell’s 20 equations that described the interaction of changing electrical and magnetic fields to just four equations, the familiar four that one encounters in any course in advanced physics…

Barthelemy Faujas-de-Saint-Fond

Barthélemy Faujas-de-Saint-Fond, a French geologist, paleontologist, and scientific traveler, was born May 17, 1741. Faujas wrote a large folio on the extinct volcanoes of central France, which we included in our 2004 exhibition, Vulcan’s Forge, and an equally large folio about a fossil found in Maastricht, Holland, which Faujas thought was a crocodile, but was later shown to be an extinct mosasaur, and which we displayed in our 2009 exhibition, The Grandeur of Life.

Pieter Camper

Pieter Camper, a Dutch naturalist also known as Petrus Camper, was born May 11, 1722, in Leiden. Camper was an avid collector of fossils, and in 1782 he acquired the collection of a surgeon, Jean Hoffmann. Hoffmann’s fossils had mostly been dug out of quarries at St. Pietersberg mountain near Maastricht, and included a huge jaw of an unknown animal. Camper described the specimen in a letter to the Royal Society of London in 1786 and ventured that the jaw belonged to a large toothed whale. Another specimen, this time a skull with both jaws, was discovered in the same quarry and acquired by a Frenchman, Barthélemy Faujas-de-St.-Fond, who disagreed with Camper’s identification, and thought it belonged to a large crocodile. After Camper died in 1789, Faujas published a beautiful account of the fossils of St. Pietersberg, illustrating both his and Camper’s specimens with fine engravings, and adding a fanciful print showing the supposed discovery of the skull. We displayed this engraving in out 2009 exhibition, The Grandeur of Life…

Paolo Toscanelli

Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, an Italian mathematician, humanist, and astronomer, died May 10, 1482, at the age of about 85. Toscanelli is a very wispy historical figure; he is like that magnet under the floor that affects the actions of everything in the room, but which no one can quite lay their hands on. The contemporary astronomer Regiomontanus likened Toscanelli to a second Archimedes, about as high a compliment as one mathematician in the 15th century could pay to another. Nicholas of Cusa, or Cusanus, the great German philosopher who served as a papal legate to Germany but spent many years in Italy, considered Toscanelli his best friend and most able mathematical accomplice, and when Cusanus and Regiomontanus almost came to blows over their conflicting ideas about the problem of squaring the circle, it was Toscanelli who acted as intermediary. Cusanus dedicated his book on quadrature to Toscanelli, and when Cusanus lay dying in the remote Perugian town of Todi in 1464, Toscanelli travelled the 120 miles from Florence to be at his bedside. Marsilio Ficino, the foremost Renaissance Platonist, also dedicated a book to Toscanelli, and the architects Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti both considered Toscanelli a close friend and an extremely capable mathematician. That is pretty much the cream of Florentine humanist culture, all touting the virtues of the man they called Master Paul…

Lansdown Guilding

Lansdown Guilding, an English clergyman naturalist, was born May 9, 1797. Guilding was born in St. Vincent in the Caribbean, was educated at Oxford, and then returned to St. Vincent, where he took up a church rectorship and became a devoted supporter of the St. Vincent Botanic Garden. The garden, founded in 1765, was the oldest of what would become, by the early 19th century, an extensive network of British colonial botanic gardens, with Kew Gardens at its hub. The director at St. Vincent resigned in 1822 and was not replaced, and Guilding eased into the vacuum and apparently gained access to the papers of previous administrators. As a result, he wrote a book, which he published at his own expense: An Account of the Botanic Garden in the Island of St. Vincent, from its first establishment to the present time (1825). The work contains four hand-colored plates that give us an idea of how the garden looked in the early 19th century (third and fourth images), and the text includes lists of the plants grown at St. Vincent in the previous 50 years…