Wednesday, 24 September 2008

A Mathematician for President


"In 1876, a politician made mathematical history. James Abram Garfield, the honorable Congressman from Ohio, published a brand new proof of the Pythagorean Theorem in The New England Journal of Education. He concluded, “We think it something on which the members of both houses can unite without distinction of party.”

You can find the rest of the story, and an interesting ending where I found it, at the blog, Let's Play Math by Denise, who calls herself a home school mom.
The only thing I would add to her well written blog, is that Garfield was not just a politician, he was one of several presidents who came from a mathematical bent. Garfield actually was a professor of mathematics at Hiram College in Ohio for several years before being elected to the Senate in 1859.

A side note about other mathematical Presidents may be of interest to students. Ulysses S Grant wrote that he had hoped to take a position as a math instructor at West Point before the Civil War changed his plans. "Stonewall" Jackson, the Confederate General, was a Professor of Mathematics at VMI (and teachers, if you think your students treat you badly, the VMI cadets dropped rocks from the windows as he walked by trying to bonk him on the head). Washington was an accomplished surveyor, Jefferson's math and architectural talent are well known and Lincoln took time off from his study of law to learn the proofs of all the propositions in the first six books of Euclid so that he could truly understand the meaning of "demonstrate". Eamon de Valera was a leader in the 1916 Easter Rising which proclaimed an Irish republic. Arrested, he was saved from a death sentence because of his American birth and instead received a prison term. He went on to be Prime Minister, and then President of the Republic, but before that, he was a teacher of mathematics. Maybe I should start a list of  "Mathematical Politicians". (Suggestions?)
If you make a copy of Garfield's construction and rotate it 180o and put the two pieces together you get an image that was presented in a proof from a Chinese block print dating around 40 AD, and reputed by oral tradition to predate the life of Pythagorus in Chinese History.

And why would I know so much about Garfield? His mother's name was Eliza Ballou, which makes her almost family.
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