Friday 17 May 2024

On This Day in Math - May 17


Even stranger things have happened;
and perhaps the strangest of all
 is the marvel that mathematics
 should be possible to a race akin to the apes.

~Eric T. Bell, The Development of Mathematics

The 137th day of the year; 137 is the sum of the squares of the first seven digits of pi, 32+ 12 + 42 + 12 + 52 + 92 + 22 = 137. *Prime Curios (Can you find other such primes from sums of squares of Pi?)

137 is the third term in a sequence of primes that can be created by staring with 7 and creating a new term by adding a single digit to the front of the previous term; 7, 37, 137 ... It is possible to create a sequence of 15 Prime numbers in this way. OEIS

 Like palindromes, Don McDonald reminded me that 10/137 is a nice one, the period eight repeating palindrome .07299270...
If you just use 1/137  you get 0.00729927....  which was also thought to be the fine structure constant in physics according to Eddington.It turned out he was very close, but not quite exact.    What if you tried 100/137?

Wolfgang Pauli died in hospital room 137, after a lifetime trying to prove that 1/137 was the fine structure constant.  It's close, but not so.  

137 is the largest prime factor of 123456787654321*Prime Curios

137 is the 33rd Prime number and is a twin prime with 139, it's a Pythagorean prime, 11^2 + 4^2,  and it is a KnockoutPrime (3,2)  it remains prime if you knock out any one character leaving two.  

137 is not a palindrome in any base between 2 and 135.... Called a strictly non-palindrome.  

137 is the first of twelve consecutive primes with equal gaps around the center, sort of a palindrome of gaps to make up for being a non-palindrome.  The 11 gaps between them is 2, 10, 2, 6, 6,  4,  6, 6, 2, 10, 2,   ending in 191.  

137 divides 11111111, and all the other eight digit repdigits.  

And direct from Prime Curios, and coffee loving mathematicians everywhere, The full chemical name for caffeine is 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine.

See More math facts for each day at Math Day of the Year Facts


1630 Belts on Jupiter first recognized. According to Rogers, the first known mention of belts on Jupiter is that by Niccolo Zucchi in 1630.( J. H. Rogers, The Giant Planet Jupiter (Cambridge University Press, 1995).)  

His "Optica philosophia experimentis et ratione a fundamentis constituta", published in 1652–56, described his 1616 experiments using a curved mirror instead of a lens as a telescope objective, which may be the earliest known description of a reflecting telescope. In his book he also demonstrated that phosphors generate rather than store light. He also published two other works on mechanics and machines.

1719 “The learned Dr. Halley is of opinion that the comet seen in 1680 is the same which appeared in Julius Caesar’s time. This shows more than any other that comets are hard, opaque bodies; for it descended so near to the sun, as to come within a sixth part of the diameter of this planet from it, and consequently might have contracted a degree of heat two thousand times stronger than that of red-hot iron; and would have been soon dispersed in vapour, had it not been a firm, dense body. The guessing the course of comets began then to be very much in vogue. The celebrated [Johann] Bernoulli concluded by his system than the famous comet of 1680 would appear again the 17th of May, 1719. Not a single astronomer in Europe went to bed that night. However, they needed not to have broke their rest, for the famous comet never appeared.” So wrote Voltaire (1694-1778) in his Letters on the English or Lettres Philosophiques, c. 1778. *VFR

1749 Oops.... In 1747 at a public session in the French Academy of Sciences Clairaut stated that Newton's theory of gravity was wrong. Euler and d’Alembert had simultaneously came to the same conclusion as all had been working on the motion of the moon as a special case of the three body problem. Clairaut suggested that the strength of gravity was proportional not to 1/r^2 , but the more complicated 1/r^2 +c/r^4 for some constant c. Over large distances, the c/r^4 term would effectively disappear, accounting for the utility of the inverse square law over large distances. He then began trying to find a value of c which could account for the moon's motion. He would continue to pursue this idea until May 17, 1749, when he made an equally dramatic announcement in which he claimed that Newton was right after all. (See Deaths below)

1861  James Clerk Maxwell exhibited a three-color photographic process before the Royal Institution of Great Britain on May 17, 1861.
Maxwell photographed a colored ribbon on photographic plates. He made three exposures: one through a red filter, one through a green filter, and one through a blue filter. He probably then re-exposed those images onto other plates, or somehow processed them into positive rather than negative images; the published paper is unclear on the process.
Then, he used magic lanterns to project his transparencies, superimposed the three images, and filtered the projectors as he had filtered the original images—with red, green & blue filters. He produced a colored image, ".a coloured image was seen, which, if the red and green images had been as fully photographed as the blue, would have been a truly-coloured image of the ribbon." (The Muser)

Other sources give "The photograph showed a tartan ribbon and was made by Thomas Sutton according to the three-colour method proposed by Maxwell already in 1855."

*SciHi Blog

1875 On May 17, 1875, the horse, Aristides, and his rider, Oliver Lewis, crossed the finish line ahead of the rest of the field at the first ever Kentucky Derby. The horse's owner, H.P. McGrath, and a roaring crowd in the stands looked on. Aristides, a Thoroughbred named after an ancient Greek general. Thirteen of the fifteen jockeys, including Lewis, were African American.(Library of Congress web site)

1882 A comet is discovered and photographed by Sir Arthur Schuster (1851-1934), Germany/UK, during an eclipse in Egypt: first time a comet discovered in this way has been photographed. The Total Solar Eclipse had been observed by Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer (1836-1920), Ranard and Schuster from England, Tacchini from Italy, Trépied, Thollon and Puiseux from France.
Observation from Sohag at the Nile. *NASA Eclipse Calendar

(image from Astrognome-scrapbook

1910 Halley's comet was big news during its visible period in New York City. Beginning with the Saturday edition of May 14 and continuing on through the Sunday edition of May 22, the comet was given top billing in the New York Times. This was the period when the comet was at the height of its brilliance and activity and the coverage clearly reflected this.
May 17: Earth will pass through comet’s 24-million-mile-long tail on May 18th; Hotels to prepare for comet watchers; Boston will sound fire alarm if comet is visible. Editorial comment on fears about comet. *Joseph M. Laufer, Halley's Comet Society - USA

The French scientist Camille Flammarion warned that Earth would pass through the comet’s tail. According to Flammarion, there was a chance that “cyanogen gas would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

A 1907 Kentucky paper wondered if the comet would smash into the Earth.

The lady pictured, and named, is Madame de Thèbes (1860–1937), pseudonym of Anne Victorine Savigny, a French clairvoyant and palm reader. She plied her trade from her living room at No. 29 Avenue de Wagram in Paris. Every Christmas, she published her prophecies in an Almanac, which enjoyed wide circulation. 

1943 U.S. Army and University of Pennsylvania Sign Contract to Develop ENIAC:
ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), an early all-electronic computing system, was developed and built by the U.S. Army for its Ballistics Research Laboratory. It was the first system to use vacuum tubes rather than electromagnetic switches. Its purpose was to calculate ballistic firing tables. ENIAC was designed by J. Presper Eckert and John William Mauchly of the University of Pennsylvania. Constructed at that university’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering, when first commissioned, the computer was known as Project PX. It cost almost $500,000 at the time. Unveiled on February 14, 1946, it operated until November 9, 1946. It was then refurbished, given a memory upgrade, and transferred to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, in 1947. On July 29th it was turned on again and ran continuously until 1955. *CHM

1967 the governor of Tennessee signed into law the repeal of the 1925 state law, the Butler Act, prohibiting the teaching of evolution. The law had made it "unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." The law had been tested in what became known as the "Scopes monkey trial." Scopes was found guilty, but the law had been undermined. Upon appeal, Scopes was acquitted on a technicality. The law itself remained a Tennessee state statute for 42 years. *TIS
Unfortunately, at the time of this writing in 2011, the issue is still not dead.


1749 Edward Jenner (17 May 1749 – 26 January 1823) English surgeon and discoverer of vaccination for smallpox. There was a common story among farmers that if a person contracted a relatively mild and harmless disease of cattle called cowpox, immunity to smallpox would result. On 14 May 1796 he removed the fluid of a cowpox from dairymaid Sarah Nelmes, and inoculated James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy, who soon came down with cowpox. Six weeks later, he inoculated the boy with smallpox. The boy remained healthy, proving the theory. He called his method vaccination, using the Latin word vacca, meaning cow, and vaccinia, meaning cowpox. Jenner also introduced the word virus.*TIS

Jenner's handwritten draft describing the first vaccination is held at the Royal College of Surgeons in London

1836 Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer KCB FRS (17 May 1836 – 16 August 1920) was an English scientist and astronomer. Along with the French scientist Pierre Janssen, he is credited with discovering the gas helium. Lockyer also is remembered for being the founder and first editor of the influential journal Nature.  

In 1868 a prominent yellow line was observed in a spectrum taken near the edge of the Sun. Its wavelength was about 588 nm, slightly less than the so-called "D" lines of sodium. The line could not be explained as due to any material known at the time, and so it was suggested by Lockyer, after he had observed it from London, that the yellow line was caused by an unknown solar element. He named this element helium after the Greek word 'Helios' meaning 'sun'. An observation of the new yellow line had been made earlier by Janssen at the 18 August 1868 solar eclipse , and because their papers reached the French academy on the same day, he and Lockyer usually are awarded joint credit for helium's discovery. Terrestrial helium was found about 27 years later by the Scottish chemist William Ramsay.

He was also interested in the classification of stellar spectra and developed the meteoric hypothesis of stellar evolution.




1897 Odd Hassel (17 May 1897 – 11 May 1981) was a Norwegian physical chemist and Nobel Laureate.

He  shared (with Sir Derek H.R. Barton of Great Britain) the 1969 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work in establishing conformational analysis (the study of the 3-D geometric structure of molecules). A ring of six carbon atoms has two conformations - the chair and boat forms. These easily interchange - about a million times in a second at room temperature. One of the conformations is, however, strongly predominant (about 99%). Hassel carried out fundamental investigations on this system and showed how heavy or bulky groups, attached to the carbon atoms, take up their positions relative to the ring and to each other. Such work is of great importance for predicting the mode of reaction of a certain molecule. *TIS

1928 Eric Charles Milner, FRSC (May 17, 1928–July 20, 1997) was a mathematician who worked mainly in combinatorial set theory.
A former London street urchin, Milner attended King's College London starting in 1946, where he competed as a featherweight boxer. He graduated in 1949 as the best mathematics student in his year, and received a masters degree in 1950 under the supervision of Richard Rado and Charles Coulson. Partial deafness prevented him from joining the Navy, and instead, in 1951, he took a position with the Straits Trading Company in Singapore assaying tin. Soon thereafter he joined the mathematics faculty at the University of Malaya in Singapore, where Alexander Oppenheim and Richard K. Guy were already working. In 1958, Milner took a sabbatical at the University of Reading, and in 1961 he took a lecturership there and began his doctoral studies; he obtained a Ph.D. from the University of London in 1963. He joined his former Singapore colleagues Guy and Peter Lancaster as a professor at the University of Calgary in 1967, where he was head of the mathematics department from 1976 to 1980. In 1973, he became Canadian citizen, and in 1976 he became a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
In 1954, while in Singapore, Milner married Esther Stella (Estelle) Lawton, whom he had known as a London student; they had four children. Estelle died of cancer in 1975, and in 1979 Milner remarried Elizabeth Forsyth Borthwick, with whom he had another son.
Milner's interest in set theory was sparked by visits of Paul Erdős to Singapore and by meeting András Hajnal while on sabbatical in Reading. He generalized Chang's ordinal partition theorem for arbitrary finite k. He is also known for the Milner–Rado paradox. *Wik

1962  Ferenc Krausz (born 17 May 1962) is an Austrian-Hungarian physicist working in attosecond science. He is a director at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics and a professor of experimental physics at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany. His research team has generated and measured the first attosecond light pulse and used it for capturing electrons' motion inside atoms, marking the birth of attophysics. In 2023, jointly with Pierre Agostini and Anne L'Huillier, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. *Wik 

An attosecond (abbreviated as as) is a unit of time in the International System of Units (SI) equal to 10−18 or 1⁄1 000 000 000 000 000 000 (one quintillion) of a second. An attosecond is to a second as a second is to about 31.71 billion years.


1702 Richard Sault (???- 1702 {both his date of birth and death are unknown. He was buried on 17 May 1702 in Cambridge} ) an English mathematician, editor and translator, one of The Athenian Society, a program created by John Dutton seemingly for the sole purpose of producing the Athenian Mercury.
Sault ran a school on Broad Street near the Royal Exchange in London. He joined forces with Dutton to create the Athenian Mercury, which began publication in London twice weekly between 17 March 1690 (1691 Gregorian calendar) and 14 June 1697.
Scholars credit Dunton with initiating the advice column format. It was first used in The Athenian Mercury in 1691. He formed a "society of experts", which he called The Athenian Society, to give their knowledgeable advice on questions submitted by the magazine's readers. The magazine had an announcement at the end encouraging readers to send in their questions. Sault was the "expert" in mathematics and answered such questions as "Is One a number?" (He choose to agree with Diaphontus and call it a number) and "How do I find Perfect Numbers".
A spin-off of The Athenian Mercury, The Ladies' Mercury was also published by The Athenian Society, in 1693, for four weeks, that was the first periodical published specifically designed just for women.
About 1700 Sault moved to Cambridge, where he died in May 1702 in poverty, supported by charitable scholars. He was buried in the church of St. Andrew the Great on 17 May 1702. *Wik

1729 Samuel Clarke (11 October 1675 – 17 May 1729) was an English clergyman who wrote on mechanics as well as philosophy and metaphysics. Clarke was considered the greatest metaphysician in England when Locke died in 1704. In 1706 Newton asked Clarke to translate his Opticks into Latin. When Newton died in 1727, Clarke was offered the position as master of the Royal Mint but he turned it down, stating that it was not consistent with his role as a clergyman. Although most of his publications were on religion and metaphysics, one of his last works was On the proportion of force to velocity in bodies in motion published a year before his death. He died in the rectory of his church of St James's, Westminster, and was buried five days later in the chancel of the church. *SAU

1765 Alexis Clairaut (sometimes Clairault)( 13 May 1713 – 17 May 1765) a French mathematician who worked to confirm the Newton-Huygens belief that the Earth was flattened at the poles. He was a child prodigy was studying calculus at age 10 and was admitted to the Academy of Sciences at age 18. He was the first person to estimate the mass of Venus to a close value. He also calculated the return date of Halley's comet. In about 1737, Pierre de Maupertuis led an expedition (including Clairaut) to measure a degree along a meridian in Lapland, while Bouguer and La Condamine went to Peru. The results, even before the Peru expedition had returned, showed that Newton was correct in predicting that the earth was flattened at the poles. He published the results in Théorie de la figure de la Terre in 1743.(various)
A nice brief summary of Clairaut's life and works is here.

As a child prodigy, at age ten he was studying calculus, tutored by his father. Clairaut read his first paper, Quatre problèmes sur de nouvelles courbes to the Paris Academy (1726) at the age of 13. He accompanied Maupertuis on an expedition to Lapland to measure the length of the meridian. From this experience, he began a book (1743) on the shape of the rotating earth under the influences of gravity and centrifugal forces. Further, he showed how to measure the shape by use of measurements of the effect of gravity at different location on the swing of a pendulum. He also determined the first reasonable value for the mass of Venus, an improved value for the mass of the moon, and predicted the timing of the return of Halley's Comet.

Also file this one under "died near birthday".. he was born May 7. (also see 1749 above)

1913 Heinrich Martin Weber (5 May 1842, Heidelberg, Germany – 17 May 1913, Strassburg, Germany, now Strasbourg, France) Weber's main work was in algebra, number theory, analysis and applications of analysis to mathematical physics. This seems a contradiction in terms, for we have now almost said that Weber's main work spans the whole spectrum of mathematics. In fact this is not far from the truth for Weber work was characterised by its breadth across a wide range of topics.*SAU
Weber was born in Heidelberg, Baden, and entered the University of Heidelberg in 1860. In 1866 he became a privatdozent, and in 1869 he was appointed as extraordinary professor at that school. Weber also taught in Zurich at the Federal Polytechnic Institute, today the ETH Zurich, at the University of Königsberg, and at the Technische Hochschule in Charlottenburg. His final post was at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Universität Straßburg, Alsace-Lorraine, where he died.*Wik

1916 Boris Borisovich Golitsyn (2 Mar 1862; 17 May 1916 at age 54) (Prince) Russian physicist known for his work on methods of earthquake observations and on the construction of seismographs. He invented the first effective electromagnetic seismograph in 1906. A seismometer of this type picks up earthquake waves with a pendulum that supports a coil of insulated wire between the poles of a magnet rigidly linked to the earth. The relative motion between the magnet and the coil caused by tremors in the earth generates corresponding electric currents in the coil. The currents can be amplified to operate a pen recorder. *TIS

1977 Erwin Wilhelm Müller (or Mueller) (June 13, 1911 – May 17, 1977) was a German physicist who invented the Field Emission Electron Microscope (FEEM), the Field Ion Microscope (FIM), and the Atom-Probe Field Ion Microscope. He and his student, Kanwar Bahadur, were the first people to experimentally observe atoms.

Images of the atomic structures of tungsten were first published in 1951 in the journal Zeitschrift für Physik. In FIM, a voltage of about 10kV is applied to a sharp metal tip, cooled to below 50 kelvin in a low-pressure helium gas atmosphere. Gas atoms are ionized by the strong electric field in the vicinity of the tip and repelled perpendicular to the tip surface. A detector images the spatial distribution of these ions giving a magnification of the curvature of the surface. 

2001 Jacques-Louis Lions (3 May 1928 – 17 May 2001) was a French mathematician who made contributions to the theory of partial differential equations and to stochastic control, among other areas. He received the SIAM's John Von Neumann prize in 1986. Lions is listed as an ISI highly cited researcher. Lions was elected President of the International Mathematical Union in 1991 and also received the Prize of Japan that same year. In 1992, the University of Houston awarded him an honorary doctoral degree. He was elected president of the French Academy of Sciences in 1996. He has left a considerable body of work, among this more than 400 scientific articles, 20 volumes of mathematics that were translated into English and Russian, and major contributions to several collective works, including the 4000 pages of the monumental Mathematical analysis and numerical methods for science and technology (in collaboration with Robert Dautray), as well as the Handbook of numerical analysis in 7 volumes (with Philippe G. Ciarlet).
His son Pierre-Louis Lions is also a well-known mathematician who was awarded a Fields Medal in 1994.*Wik

Credits :
*CHM=Computer History Museum
*FFF=Kane, Famous First Facts
*NSEC= NASA Solar Eclipse Calendar
*RMAT= The Renaissance Mathematicus, Thony Christie
*SAU=St Andrews Univ. Math History
*TIA = Today in Astronomy
*TIS= Today in Science History
*VFR = V Frederick Rickey, USMA
*Wik = Wikipedia
*WM = Women of Mathematics, Grinstein & Campbell

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