Friday, 12 June 2009

Updating the History of the Pigeon Hole Theorem

The Pigeon Hole Principle......The basic idea behind this mathematical principle is what students would call common sense; if there are n objects to be placed in m receptacles (with m less than n), at least two of the items must go into the same container. While the idea is common sense, in the hands of a capable mathematician it can be made to do uncommon things. Here is a link to an article by Alexander Bogomolny in which he uses the principle to argue that there must be at least two persons in New York City with the same number of hairs on their head. This "counting hairs" approach dates back to the earliest version of the principal I have ever seen.

The same axiom is often named in honor of Dirichlet who used it in solving Pell's equation. The pigeon seems to be a recent addition, as Jeff Miller's web site on the first use of some math words gives, "Pigeon-hole principle occurs in English in Paul Erdös and R. Rado, A partition calculus in set theory, Bull. Am. Math. Soc. 62 (Sept. 1956)" (although they credit Dedekind for the principle). In a recent discussion on a history group Julio Cabillon added that there are a variety of names in different countries for the idea. His list included "le principe des tiroirs de Dirichlet", French for the principle of the drawers of Dirichlet, and the Portugese "principio da casa dos pombos" for the house of pigeons principle and "das gavetas de Dirichlet" for the drawers of Dirichlet. It also is sometimes simply called Dirichlet's principle and most simply of all, the box principle. Jozef Przytycki wrote me to add, "In Polish
we use also:"the principle of the drawers of Dirichlet"
that is 'Zasada szufladkowa Dirichleta' ". I received a note that said, "Dirichlet first wrote about it in Recherches sur les formes quadratiques à coefficients et à indéterminées complexes (J. reine u. angew. Math. (24 (1842) 291 371) = Math. Werke, (1889 1897), which was reprinted by Chelsea, 1969, vol. I, pp. 533-618. On pp. 579-580, he uses the principle."

He doesn't give it a name. In later works he called it the "Schubfach Prinzip" [which I am told means "drawer principle" in German]

The idea has been around much longer than Dirichlet, however, as I found out in June of 2009 when Dave Renfro sent me word that the idea pops up in the unexpected (at least by me) work, "Portraits of the seventeenth century, historic and literary", by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. During his description of Mme. de Longuevillle, who was Ann-Genevieve De Bourbon, and lived from 1619 to 1679 he tells the following story:
"I asked M. Nicole (See below for description of M. Nicole) one day what was the character of Mme. de Longueville's mind; he told me she had a very keen and very delicate mind in knowledge of the character of individuals, but that it was very small, very weak, very limited on matters of science and reasoning, and on all speculative matters in which there was no question of sentiment ' For example,' added he, ' I told her one day that I could bet and prove that there were in Paris at least two inhabitants who had the same number of hairs upon their head, though I could not point out who were those two persons. She said i could not be certain of it until I had counted the hairs of the two persons. Here is my demonstration/ I said to her: M lay it down as a fact that the best-fiimbhed (not sure what this word was supposed to be, ..Plumbed??) head does not possess more than 200,000 hairs, and the most scantily furnished head b that which has only 1 hair. If, now you suppose that 200,000 heads all have a different number of hairs, they must each have one of the numbers of hairs which are between 1 and 200,000; for if we suppose that there were 2 among these 200,000 who had the same number of hairs, I win my bet But suppose these 200,000 inhabitants all have a different number of hairs, if I bring in a single other inhabitant who has hairs and has no more than 200,000 of them, it necessarily follows that this number of hairs, whatever it b, will be found between 1 and 200,000, and, consequently, b equal in number of hairs to one of the 200,000 heads. Now, as instead of one inhabitant more than 200,000, there are, in all, nearly 800,000 inhabitants in Paris, you see plainly that there must be many heads equal in number of hairs, although I have not counted them.' Mme. de Longuevillle still could not understand that demonstration could be made of the equality in number of hairs, and she always maintained that the only way to prove it was to count them. "

The M. Nicole who demonstrated the principal was Pierre Nicole, (1625 -1695), one of the most distinguished of the French Jansenist writers, sometimes compared more favorably than Pascal for his writings on the moral reasoning of the Port Royal Jansenists. It may be that he had picked up the principal from Antoine Arnauld, another Port Royal Jansenist who was an influential mathematician and logician. Here is a segment from his bio at the St. Andrews Math History site.
He published Port-Royal Grammar in 1660 which was strongly influenced by Descartes' Regulae. In Port-Royal Grammar Arnauld argued that mental processes and grammar are virtually the same thing. Since mental processes are carried out by all human beings, he argued for a universal grammar. Modern linguistic theorists consider this work as the beginnings of the modern approach their subject. Arnauld's next work was Port-Royal Logic which was another book of major importance. It was also strongly influenced by Descartes' Regulae and also gave a first hand account of Pascal's Méthode. This work presented a theory of ideas which remained important in philosophy courses until comparatively recent times. In 1667 Arnauld published New Elements of Geometry. This work was based on Euclid's Elements and was intended to give a new approach to teaching geometry rather than new geometrical theorems."
He was a correspondent of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and of course Pascal, who wrote the Pascal "Provincial Letters" in support of Arnauld. I enjoyed the quote about him from the Wikipedia bio: "His inexhaustible energy is best expressed by his famous reply to Nicole, who complained of feeling tired. 'Tired!' echoed Arnauld, 'when you have all eternity to rest in?"

I have not been able to find any thing in Arnauld's personal writing at this time to confirm that he was aware of or used the Pigeon-hole Principle. I have also seen a comment that there is a book by Henry (or Henrik) van Etten (pseudonym of Jean Leurechon, who coined the term thermometer) , circa 1624, which uses the method for problems involving "if there are more pages than words on any page" and various other illustrations. The writer suggests that the problem is in the French version but not the English translation. Would love to hear from someone who can confirm, and perhaps send a digital image.

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