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Ten of the Most Important Mathematicians You Should Know

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As March begins, many of us look to basketball courts for entertainment. It seems appropriate, then, to consider how basketball, like so many other forms of entertainment, centers on mathematics, vis-à-vis statistics, physics, spatial relationships, and various other calculations. These mathematical underpinnings extend to the computer and television technologies we use to follow the sport, which are built on the innumerable discoveries of our mathematically minded forebears. With this in mind, this March, we’re taking a look at 10 mathematicians whose tireless efforts have shaped the technology we use to experience and understand the world.

Foundational Theorists

Nearly everyone familiar with scientific history will recognize the names Euclid, Pythagoras, and Newton—and for good reason. These three contributed immeasurably to humanity’s understanding of mathematics, shaping how we think about spatial relationships, logical argument, and the physical forces that set our world in motion. While the two mathematicians profiled below may not share the notoriety of these titans of mathematics, their contributions are no less influential to the field.

  1. Hypatia: One of the first female mathematicians in recorded history, Hypatia was a fourth‑century scholar at the library of Alexandria, one of the world’s largest troves of knowledge. There, she edited and commented on prominent works by the forefathers of arithmetic, including Diophantus’ Arithmetica. She is perhaps most famous for her annotated version of Euclid’s The Elements, in which the theorems of Euclidean Geometry—the first examples of formal proof making—and the principles of three-dimensional geometry were introduced. Hypatia’s academic legacy lasted for centuries after her time.

  2. Girolamo Cardano: Born in 1501, Cardano had a lasting effect on the field of algebra, despite not being a mathematician by trade. Though he earned his wage as a physician, the curiosity of this Renaissance man extended to physics, chemistry, astrology, philosophy, writing, inventing, and gambling, with this last interest inspiring many of the discoveries essential to probability calculations. In fact, if you’re creating a March Madness bracket this year, you’re probably using some of Cardano’s theories without even realizing it. The influence of his discoveries in probability extend well beyond sports—they have helped in the development of many statistically intensive pursuits and are implemented in scientific studies to this day.

Fathers of Computing

As advancements in computer technology continue at a blistering pace, it can be easy to forget the progenitors of computer science, whose efforts made possible the extraordinary machines we use every day. Many of their discoveries began hundreds of years before the computer was born yet continue to influence its development.

  1. Carl Friedrich Gauss: Working through the turn of the 19th century, Gauss developed the basic tenets of the branch of mathematics called number theory. Among many other uses, these tenets form the basis of computer science, which, at its core, translates sequences of ones and zeros into complex functions.

  2. John Von Neumann: John Von Neumann is the mind behind much of the architecture that supports modern computers. His discoveries in many different areas of mathematics—including set theory, geometry, quantum mechanics, game theory, statistics, and computer science—paved the way for the repetitive actions and calculations on which computers are built.

  3. Alan Turing: Considered the father of computer science, Turing used what he learned as a prolific codebreaker in World War II to build the foundation of modern-day computing. He also established the Turing test of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which many consider to be an accurate gauge of “true” intelligence, as a passing grade can only be achieved when an AI can reliably convince humans that they not interacting with a machine but with another human.

  4. Benoit Mandelbrot: Mandelbrot’s work in fractal geometry established many of the principles used in computer graphics and animation. Without his work, many believe that Computer‑Generated Imagery (CGI) would not be possible, at least not at the level of sophistication that it has achieved.

  5. John Horton Conway: With his work in group theory, number theory, and computer science, Conway created a popular game for computer scientists called the Game of Life. Far from the board game of the same name, this game shows how patterns of cells evolve and has profoundly influenced developments in the fields of computer science and medicine.

Modern Calculations  

While the study of mathematics may not be the most glamorous profession, it is at the core of humanity’s most spectacular achievements. It provides the essential structure for capturing the human imagination—whether that’s by putting a man in space or tracking players’ movements on the basketball court.

  1. Paul Erdos: Probably the second most prolific mathematician after Euler, Erdos has collaborated on so many papers that the mathematical community measures something called the Erdos effect, which assigns a number based on how many degrees away a modern Mathematician is away from publishing with Erdos.

  2. Katherine Johnson: Johnson is a mathematician who helped with the orbital mechanics calculations that put the first men in space. She mastered complex calculations to enable the missions of astronauts throughout her 35-year career in the US space industry. Though many saw a portrayal of her in the movie Hidden Figures, few know that her career had a legacy long after the portion of her life that the movie captured.

  3. Grace Hopper: In her work for the Navy, Hopper helped advocate for a machine-independent programming language, which led to the development of COBOL, a high-level programming language that is still in use today.  She served as the head of the Navy Programming Languages group in Navy’s Office of Information Systems Planning and was made a captain in 1973.
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