or What A 19th Century French Mathematician Taught Me About Love
I know nothing about abstract algebra. I know even less about polynomial equations. Field theory, permutation groups, Abelian integers are all an absolute mystery to me and my understanding of 19th Century France and the radical Republican movement during the reign of Louis Philippe is really no clearer.
That being so, it is strange that I am aware of Évariste Galois at all – given that he was a preeminent mathematician and an active political agitator living in Paris in the early 1800s – but his story rather sticks in the mind.
Though the details surrounding the final days of his life are scant and hotly contested, the general consensus seems to be that there was a sweetheart at the centre of it.
Reading between the lines of the letters that Galois was writing at the time, it is clear that he had been conducting an affair with a woman named Stéphanie-Félicie Poterin du Motel. Du Motel was engaged to pistol-owner and crack-shot, Pescheux d’Herbinville, who, on discovering their illicit relationship, threw down the gauntlet and demanded to duel Galois.
Galois, being a man of numbers, had little difficulty in calculating the probability of his survival in this particular set-up. Convinced that he was going to die at dawn the next morning, he stayed up through the night frantically scribbling down all of the mathematical ideas in his head and sent them to a friend so that, if nothing else, his work could live on.
The resulting manuscript was, by all accounts, an absolute knockout. His ideas caused huge advances to be made in the study of modern mathematics and some mathematicians have even gone as far as to say that Galois’ final letters make perhaps the greatest contribution to the wealth of literature that mankind has so far amassed (though that would appear to say more about mathematicians’ idea of a good read than it does about the the letters themselves).
The next morning, the genius Galois was shot in the gut. He died a day later from the wounds, on May 31st 1832 – aged just twenty.
Though his life was short, Évariste Galois has taught a lot of people a lot of things – almost all of them to do with abstract algebra, polynomial equations and field theory. The lesson he taught me though, 180 years after his death, is a very different one.
Namely: You can be as smart as you like; love can make a fool out of anyone.