Leonhard Euler’s tomb

Euler and me

Euler and me

Today is 31 December 2012, the last day of this year. I’ve thought that the last post of 2012 must be related with my best mathematical moment of the year: I visited Euler’s tomb in Saint Petersburg in holidays! Euler was one of the best mathematician in the history of mathematics! According to D. M. Burton (The History of Mathematics, The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1991):

The key figure in eighteenth century mathematics was Leonhard Euler (1707-1783), and the scene of his activity was chiefly Germany and Russia.

A short Euler’s biography can be read in V. J. Katz (A History of Mathematics, Addison Wesley Longman, 1998):

Born in Basel, Switzerland, Euler showed his brilliance early, graduating with honors from the University of Basel when he was 15. Although his father preferred that he prepare for the ministry, Euler managed to convince Johann Bernoulli to tutor him privately in mathematics. The later soon recognized his student’s genius and persuaded Euler’s father to allow him to concentrate on mathematics. In 1726 Euler was turned down for a position at the university, partly because of his youth. A few years earlier, however, Peter the Great of Russia, on the urging of Leibniz, had decided to create the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences as part of his efforts to modernize the Russian state. Among the earliest members of the Academy, appointed in 1725, were Nicolaus II (1695-726) and Daniel Bernoulli (1700-1782), two of Johann’s sons with whom Euler had developed a friendship. Although there was no position in mathematics available in St. Petersburg in 1726, they nevertheless recommended him for the vacancy in medicine and physiology, a position Euler immediately accepted. (He had studied these subjects during his time at Basel).

In 1733, after Nicolaus’ death and Daniel’s return to Switzerland, Euler was appointed the Academy’s chief mathematician. Late in the same year, he married Catherine Gsell with whom he subsequently had 13 children. The life of a foreign scientist was not always carefree in Russia at the time. Nevertheless, Euler was able generally to steer clear of controversies until the problems surrounding the succession to the Russian throne in 1741 convinced him to accept the invitation of Frederik II of Prussia to join the Berlin Academy of Sciences, founded by Frederik I, also on the advice of Leibniz. He soon became director of the Academy’s mathematics section, and with the publication of his texts in analysis as well as numerous mathematical articles, became recognized as the premier mathematician of Europe. In 1755 the Paris Academy of Sciences named him foreign member, partly in recognition of his winning their biennial prize competition 12 times. Ultimately, however, Frederik tired of Euler’s lack of philosophical sophistication. When the two could not agree on financial arrangements or on academic freedom, Euler returned to Russia in 1766 at the invitation of Empress Catherine the Great, whose succession to the throne marked Russia’s return to the westernizing policies of Peter the Great. With the financial security of his family now assured, Euler continued his mathematical activities even though he became almost totally blind in 1771. His prodigious memory enabled him to perform detailed calculations in his head. Thus he was able to dictate his articles and letters to his sons and others virtually until the day of his sudden death in 1783 while playing with one of his grandchildren.

Following with D. M. Burton again:

Without doubt, Euler was the most versatile and prolific writer in the entire history of mathematics. Fifty pages were finally required in his eulogy merely to list the titles of his published works. He wrote or dictated over 700 books and papers in his lifetime, and left so much unpublished material that the Saint Petersburg Academy did not finish printing all his manuscripts until 47 years after his death. The publication of Euler’s collected works was begun by the Swiss Society of Natural Sciences in 1911, and it is estimated that more than 75 large volumes will ultimately be required for the completion of this monumental project.

The tomb is located in Laura Alexander Nevsky which is an orthodox monastery built by Peter the Great in 1710. The building of the monastery itself has no special mathematical interest as the focus of the visit is focused on the search for the concrete tomb. When I was buying the tickets to the cemeteries, the lady in the entrance pointed to the door of Our Lady of Tikhvin cemetery and told me: “Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky . But I wasn’t there to admire these two great Russian men! I went to St. Lazarus cemetery to locate Euler’s tomb:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

It was one of the best moments in my life! I took some photos and I hope that my mind could keep that magical moment. Remembering that famous Whitney Houston’s song: “One moment in time”. That moment was my “one moment in time”!

See you next year!


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