Biographies of famous scientists in the field of mathematics and physics

Biographies of scholars such as Leonardo da Vinci, Kelly Miller, Rene Descartes, Leonhard Euler, Nicolaus Copernicus, Alan Turing and other scientists who have made an invaluable contribution to science. Their ways of life and achievements in science.

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Leonardo da Vinci Biography

Writer, Mathematician, Inventor, Artist (1452-1519)

Leonardo da Vinci was a leading artist and intellectual of the Italian Renaissance who's known for his enduring works "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa."


Born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy, Leonardo da Vinci was concerned with the laws of science and nature, which greatly informed his work as a painter, sculptor, inventor and draftsmen. His ideas and body of work--which includes "Virgin of the Rocks," "The Last Supper," "Leda and the Swan" and "Mona Lisa"--have influenced countless artists and made da Vinci a leading light of the Italian Renaissance.

Humble Beginnings

Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy. Born out of wedlock, the love child of a respected notary and a young peasant woman, he was raised by his father, Ser Piero, and his stepmothers. At the age of 14, da Vinci began apprenticing with the artist Verrocchio. For six years, he learned a wide breadth of technical skills, including metalworking, leather arts, carpentry, drawing and sculpting. By the age of 20, he had qualified as a master artist in the Guild of Saint Luke and established his own workshop.

Florentine court records show that da Vinci was charged with and acquitted of sodomy at the age of 22, and for two years, his whereabouts went entirely undocumented.

'The Last Supper'

In 1482, Lorenzo de' Medici, a man from a prominent Italian family, commissioned da Vinci to create a silver lyre and bring it to Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan, as a gesture of peace. Da Vinci did so and then wrote Ludovico a letter describing how his engineering and artistic talents would be of great service to Ludovico's court. His letter successfully endeared him to Ludovico, and from 1482 until 1499, Leonardo was commissioned to work on a great many projects. It was during this time that da Vinci painted "The Last Supper."

'Mona Lisa'

Da Vinci's most well-known painting, and arguably the most famous painting in the world, the "Mona Lisa," was a privately commissioned work and was completed sometime between 1505 and 1507. Of the painting's wide appeal, James Beck, an art historian at Columbia University, once explained, "It is the inherent spirituality of the human creature that Leonardo was able to ingenuine to the picture that raises the human figure to some kind of majesty."

It's been said that the Mona Lisa had jaundice, that she was a pregnant woman and that she wasn't actually a woman at all, but a man in drag. Based on accounts from an early biographer, however, the "Mona Lisa" is a picture of Lisa Gioconda, the real-life wife of a merchant, but that's far from certain. For da Vinci, the "Mona Lisa" was forever a work in progress, as it was his attempt at perfection. The painting was never delivered to its commissioner; da Vinci kept it with him until the end of his life. Today, the "Mona Lisa" hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, secured behind bulletproof glass, and is regarded as a priceless national treasure.

Renaissance Man

Da Vinci has been called a genius and the archetypal Renaissance man. His talents inarguably extended far beyond his artistic works. Like many leaders of Renaissance humanism, he did not see a divide between science and art. His observations and inventions were recorded in 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, including designs for flying machines (some 400 years before the Wright brothers' first success), plant studies, war machinery, anatomy and architecture. His ideas were mainly theoretical explanations, laid out in exacting detail, but they were rarely experimental. His drawings of a fetus in utero, the heart and vascular system, sex organs, and other bone and muscular structures, are some of the first on human record.

One of da Vinci's last commissioned works was a mechanical lion that could walk and open its chest to reveal a bouquet of lilies. The famous artist died in Amboise, France, on May 2, 1519. Da Vinci's assistant and perhaps his lover, Francesco Melzi, became the principal heir and executor of his estate.

Kelly Miller Biography

Mathematician (1863-1939)


“The diplomas which you hold in your hands confer upon you all the rewards, rights, privileges, honours and distinctions which are accustomed to be conferred upon the choicest youth of the human race throughout the civilized world. ...But I must caution you to discriminate finely between self-respect and self-conceit.” --Kelly Miller


Kelly Miller was born on July 18, 1863, in Winnsboro, South Carolina. A minister noticed his aptitude for mathematics, so he was sent to the Fairfield Institute to study, earning a scholarship to Howard University. He attended Johns Hopkins University for post-graduate work, the first black man to do so. He spent his teaching career at Howard University, and eventually died at his home on the campus, in Washington, D.C., on December 29, 1939.

Early Life

Kelly Miller was born on July 18, 1863, in Winnsboro, South Carolina. He was the sixth of 10 children. His father, Kelly Miller Sr., was a Confederate soldier, and his mother, Elizabeth Roberts, was a former slave. As a youth, Miller attended a grammar school that had been established during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, but a local minister noticed his aptitude for math and arranged for Miller to attend the Fairfield Institute. His industry there eventually earned him a scholarship to Howard University, in Washington, D.C.

After graduating from Howard in 1886, having excelled in Latin and Greek as well as math and sociology, Miller secured a position in the U.S. Pension Office, where he had clerked as an undergrad. In 1887, due in part to the recommendations of his professors and the institution's Quaker leanings, he became the first black man to be admitted to study at Johns Hopkins University, where he did post-graduate work in mathematics, physics and astronomy until 1889.

Teaching Career and Writing

When increased tuition fees compelled Miller to take a job teaching at M Street High School in Washington, D.C., he had to leave Johns Hopkins. However, he returned to Howard University the following year to take a teaching position. In 1895, Miller became the first person at the university to teach sociology.

Meanwhile, Miller continued his own education, pursuing a master's degree in mathematics, which he earned in 1901, and by attending the College of Law, from which he earned his degree in 1903. In 1907, he became dean of Howard's College of Arts and Sciences and initiated a modernization of the curriculum. During his tenure, Miller would make considerable efforts to recruit students for the school by touring the Southern states. His hard work would soon bear fruit, as undergraduate enrollment more than tripled during his first four years as dean.

While continuing to teach, Miller's frequently published as well. His work included a weekly column in which he was able to express his social and political views and his 1908 book, Race Adjustment. Although he also assisted W. E. B. Du Bois in editing the NAACP's official journal, he was aligned with neither liberal thinkers nor the conservatives of the Booker T. Washington faction. Instead, he stressed a middle ground that involved comprehensive education and self-sufficiency. His graduation address at Howard University in 1898 eloquently underscored his ideas.

Death and Legacy

In 1918, Howard University appointed a new president and Miller was demoted to dean of the junior college. However, he continued to teach sociology at the institution, and on December 29, 1939, Kelly Miller died at his home on the Howard University campus. Miller was survived by a wife, four of five children, and a legacy that showed higher education for African Americans was an attainable goal.

Renй Descartes Biography

Academic, Philosopher, Mathematician, Scientist (1596-1650)


Renй Descartes was born on March 31, 1596, in La Haye, France. He was extensively educated, first at a Jesuit college at age 8, then earning a law degree at 22, but an influential teacher set him on a course to apply mathematics and logic to understanding the natural world. This approach incorporated the contemplation of the nature of existence and of knowledge itself, hence his most famous observation, “I think; therefore I am.”

Early Life

Philosopher Renй Descartes was born on March 31, 1596, in La Haye, a small town in central France, which has since been renamed after him to honor its most famous son. He was the youngest of three children, and his mother, Jeanne Brochard, died within his first year of life. His father, Joachim, a council member in the provincial parliament, sent the children to live with their maternal grandmother, where they remained even after he remarried a few years later. But he was very concerned with good education and sent Renй, at age 8, to boarding school at the Jesuit college of Henri IV in La Flиche, several miles to the north, for seven years.

Descartes was a good student, although it is thought that he might have been sickly, since he didn't have to abide by the school's rigorous schedule and was instead allowed to rest in bed until midmorning. The subjects he studied, such as rhetoric and logic and the “mathematical arts,” which included music and astronomy, as well as metaphysics, natural philosophy and ethics, equipped him well for his future as a philosopher. So did spending the next four years earning a baccalaureate in law at the University of Poitiers. Some scholars speculate that he may have had a nervous breakdown during this time.

Descartes later added theology and medicine to his studies. But he eschewed all this, “resolving to seek no knowledge other than that of which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world,” he wrote much later inDiscourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, published in 1637.

So he traveled, joined the army for a brief time, saw some battles and was introduced to Dutch scientist and philosopher Isaac Beeckman, who would become for Descartes a very influential teacher. A year after graduating from Poitiers, Descartes credited a series of three very powerful dreams or visions with determining the course of his study for the rest of his life.

Becoming the Father of Modern Philosophy

Descartes is considered by many to be the father of modern philosophy, because his ideas departed widely from current understanding in the early 17th century, which was more feeling-based. While elements of his philosophy weren't completely new, his approach to them was. Descartes believed in basically clearing everything off the table, all preconceived and inherited notions, and starting fresh, putting back one by one the things that were certain, which for him began with the statement “I exist.” From this sprang his most famous quote: “I think; therefore I am.”

Since Descartes believed that all truths were ultimately linked, he sought to uncover the meaning of the natural world with a rational approach, through science and mathematics--in some ways an extension of the approach Sir Francis Bacon had asserted in England a few decades prior. In addition toDiscourse on the Method, Descartes also published Meditations on First Philosophy and Principles of Philosophy, among other treatises.

Although philosophy is largely where the 20th century deposited Descartes--each century has focused on different aspects of his work--his investigations in theoretical physics led many scholars to consider him a mathematician first. He introduced Cartesian geometry, which incorporates algebra; through his laws of refraction, he developed an empirical understanding of rainbows; and he proposed a naturalistic account of the formation of the solar system, although he felt he had to suppress much of that due to Galileo's fate at the hands of the Inquisition. His concern wasn't misplaced--Pope Alexander VII later added Descartes' works to the Index of Prohibited Books.

Leonhard Euler Biography

Mathematician (1707-1783)


Born on April 15, 1707, in Basel, Switzerland, Leonhard Euler was one of math's most pioneering thinkers, establishing a career as an academy scholar and contributing greatly to the fields of geometry, trigonometry and calculus, among many others. He released hundreds of articles and publications during his lifetime, and continued to publish after losing his sight. He died on September 18, 1783.

Early Life and Education

Leonhard Euler was born on April 15, 1707, in Basel, Switzerland. Though originally slated for a career as a rural clergyman, Euler showed an early aptitude and propensity for mathematics, and thus, after studying with Johan Bernoulli, he attended the University of Basel and earned his master's during his teens. Moving to Russia in 1727, Euler served in the navy before joining the St. Petersburg Academy as a professor of physics and later heading its mathematics division.

He wed Katharina Gsell in early 1734, with the couple going on to have many children, though only five lived past their father. The couple were married for 39 years until Katharina's death, and Euler remarried in his later years to her half-sister.

In 1736, he published his first book of many, Mechanica. By the end of the decade, having suffered from fevers and overexertion due to cartography work, Euler was severely hampered in the ability to see from his right eye.

Heads Academy of Science

In the mid-1740s, Euler was appointed the mathematics director of the newly created Berlin Academy of Science and Beaux Arts, taking on a variety of management roles as well becoming head of the organization itself for a time starting in 1759. Not appointed president proper of the academy by King Frederick II, Euler received patronage from Catherine II and in 1766 returned to Russia to head the St. Petersburg Academy.

By the early 1770s, Euler had lost his sight completely after not allowing for proper recuperation after an operation. Yet, with a mind that remained highly agile, he was able to continue his scientific work and with assistance published scores of articles.

Revolutionary Principles

Over his career, Euler came up with an array of principles which laid the foundation for much of modern mathematics as we know it. He was a revolutionary thinker in the fields of geometry, trigonometry, calculus, differential equations, number theory and notational systems--including the utilization of р and f(x)--among a legion of other accomplishments. His Euler's Identity theorem is often cited as the most delightful of equations and his work also focused on the fields of astronomy/lunar motion, acoustics, mechanics and music.

Euler was a highly prolific author, having written hundreds of papers and publications over his lifetime, including the well-known science and philosophy series Letters to a German Princess.

Death and Legacy

Euler, working on the day of his passing, suffered from a brain hemorrhage and died during the night of September 18, 1783, in St. Petersburg.

Euler's legacy has been enormous in terms of shaping the modern playing field of mathematics and engineering, with his work highlighted by the Mathematical Association of America and honored by mathematicians around the world. A massive project that has taken more than a century to complete,Leonhardi Euleri Opera Omnia is a full presentation of his work and has had dozens of volumes published over the years. The last two Opera Omniavolumes are tentatively scheduled for a 2014 release date.

Nicolaus Copernicus Biography

Mathematician, Astronomer, Scientist (1473-1543)

Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus identified the concept of a heliocentric solar system, in which the sun, rather than the earth, is the center of the solar system.


Nicolaus Copernicus was born on February 19, 1473 in Torun, Poland. Circa 1508, Copernicus developed his own celestial model of a heliocentric planetary system. Around 1514, he shared his findings in theCommentariolus. His second book on the topic, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, was banned by the Roman Catholic Church not long after his May 24, 1543 death in Frauenburg, Poland.

Early Education

Famed astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (Mikolaj Kopernik, in German) came into the world on February 19, 1473. The fourth and youngest child born to Nicolaus Copernicus Sr. and Barbara Watzenrode, an affluent copper merchant family in Torun, Poland, Copernicus was technically born of German heritage--by the time he was born, Torun had ceded to Poland, rendering him a citizen under the Polish crown. German was Copernicus's first language, but some scholars believe that he spoke some Polish as well.

When Copernicus was 10 years old, his father passed away. His maternal uncle, Bishop of Varmia Lucas Watzenrode, generously assumed the paternal role, taking it upon himself to ensure that Copernicus received the best possible education.

In 1491, Copernicus entered the University of Cracow, where he studied painting and mathematics. Though he did not take astronomy classes at that time, he developed a growing interest in the cosmos, and started collecting books on the topic.

Upon graduating from Cracow in 1494, Copernicus returned to Torun, where he took a canon's position--arranged by his uncle--at Frombork's cathedral. Though the opportunity was only typically available to priests, Copernicus was able to hold onto the job for the rest of his life. It was a fortunate stroke for Copernicus: The canon's position afforded him the opportunity to fund the continuation of his studies for as long as he liked. Still, the job demanded much of his schedule; he was only able to pursue his academic interests intermittently, during his free time.

In 1496, Copernicus took leave and traveled to Italy, where he enrolled in a religious law program as the University of Bologna. There, he met astronomer Domenico Maria Novara--a fateful encounter, as the two began exchanging astronomical ideas and observations. Historian Edward Rosen described the relationship as follows: "In establishing close contact with Novara, Copernicus met, perhaps for the first time in his life, a mind that dared to challenge the authority of [Ptolemy] the most eminent ancient writer in his chosen fields of study." The friends were so enthralled in their intellectual exchange, they decided to become roommates.

In 1500, after completing his law studies in Bologna, Copernicus went on to study practical medicine at the University of Padua. He did not, however, stay long enough to earn a degree, since the two-year leave of absence from his canon position was nearing expiration. In 1503, Copernicus attended the University of Ferrara, where he prepared to take the canon law exam. After passing the test on his first attempt, he hurried back home to Poland, where he resumed his position as canon and rejoined his uncle at a nearby Episcopal residence. Copernicus remained at the Lidzbark-Warminski residence for the next seven years, working and tending to his elderly, ailing uncle, and exploring astronomy whenever he could find the time.

In 1510, Copernicus moved to a residence in the Frombork Cathedral Chapter in hopes of clearing additional time to study astronomy. He would live there as a canon for the duration of his life.

Christian Doppler Biography

Mathematician, Physicist, Scientist (1803-1853)


Christian Doppler was born in Salzburg, Austria, on November 29, 1803. He taught mathematics and physics at the university level while conducting his own research. Doppler is best known for articulating an influential principle known as the "Doppler effect" in an 1842 paper. He was often ill and died while convalescing in Venice, Italy, on March 17, 1853.

Early Life

Christian Andreas Doppler was born on November 29, 1803, in Salzburg, Austria. His lack of physical strength kept Doppler from joining his father in his stonemasonry business. Doppler studied philosophy in Salzburg, and mathematics and physics at the Vienna University of Technology and the University of Vienna.

Academic Career

In 1835, Christian Doppler accepted an academic position at what is now Czech Technical University. He published widely, but was known as a harsh instructor who was not popular among his students. He married Mathild Sturm, a native of Strasburg, in 1836. They would have five children over the course of their marriage.

In 1842, Doppler gave a presentation called "Ьber das farbige Licht der Doppelsterne" ("On the colored light of the double stars and certain other stars of the heavens") at the Royal Bohemian Society of Sciences. The paper theorized that since the pitch of sound from a moving source varies for a stationary observer, the color of the light from a star should alter according to the star's velocity relative to Earth. This principle came to be known as the "Doppler effect." The Doppler effect has been used to support the Big Bang Theory and is often referenced in weather forecasting, radar and navigation.

Doppler left Prague in 1847 and accepted a professorship in mathematics, physics and mechanics at the Academy of Mines and Forests in the Slovakian town of Banska Stiavnica. When revolution broke out in the region in 1848, Doppler was forced to return to Vienna.

In 1850, Doppler was appointed head of the Institute for Experimental Physics at the University of Vienna. One of his students there was Gregor Mendel, known for his tremendous contributions to the field of genetics, who did not impress Doppler at the time. Another member of faculty, Franz Unger, served as a mentor to Mendel.


Doppler did not live long after his return to Vienna. He contracted tuberculosis, which made speech difficult and forced him to take a leave of absence in 1852. He traveled to Italy in search of a warmer climate during his convalescence.

Christian Doppler died of pulmonary disease on March 17, 1853, in Venice, Italy. He is buried inside the Venetian island cemetery of San Michele.

Robert Hooke Biography

Academic, Philosopher, Scholar, Mathematician, Illustrator, Architect, Astronomer, Physicist, Scientist (1635-1703)


Born in Freshwater on England's Isle of Wight in 1635, scientist Robert Hooke was educated at Oxford and spent his career at the Royal Society and Gresham College. His research and experiments ranged from astronomy to biology to physics; he is particularly recognized for the observations he made while using a microscope and for "Hooke's Law" of elasticity. Hooke died in London in 1703.

Early Life and Education

Robert Hooke was born in the town of Freshwater, on England's Isle of Wight, on July 18, 1635. His parents were John Hooke, who served as curate for the local church parish, and Cecily (nйe Gyles) Hooke.

Initially a sickly child, Hooke grew to be a quick learner who was interested in painting and adept at making mechanical toys and models. After his father's death in 1648, the 13-year-old Hooke was sent to London to apprentice with painter Peter Lely. This connection turned out to be a short one, and he went instead to study at London's Westminster School.

In 1653, Hooke enrolled at Oxford's Christ Church College, where he supplemented his meager funds by working as an assistant to the scientist Robert Boyle. While studying subjects ranging from astronomy to chemistry, Hooke also made influential friends, such as future architect Christopher Wren.

Teaching, Research and Other Occupations

Hooke was appointed curator of experiments for the newly formed Royal Society of London in 1662, a position he obtained with Boyle's support. Hooke became a fellow of the society in 1663.

Unlike many of the gentleman scientists he interacted with, Hooke required an income. In 1665, he accepted a position as professor of geometry at Gresham College in London. After the "Great Fire" destroyed much of London in 1666, Hooke became a city surveyor. Working with Wren, he assessed the damage and redesigned many of London's streets and public buildings.

Major Discoveries and Achievements

A true polymath, the topics Hooke covered during his career include comets, the motion of light, the rotation of Jupiter, gravity, human memory and the properties of air. In all of his studies and demonstrations, he adhered to the scientific method of experimentation and observation. Hooke also utilized the most up-to-date instruments in his many projects.

Hooke's most important publication was Micrographia, a 1665 volume documenting experiments he had made with a microscope. In this groundbreaking study, he coined the term "cell" while discussing the structure of cork. He also described flies, feathers and snowflakes, and correctly identified fossils as remnants of once-living things.

The 1678 publication of Hooke's Lectures of Spring shared his theory of elasticity; in what came to be known as "Hooke's Law," he stated that the force required to extend or compress a spring is proportional to the distance of that extension or compression. In an ongoing, related project, Hooke worked for many years on the invention of a spring-regulated watch.

Personal Life and Reputation

Hooke never married. His niece, Grace Hooke, his longtime live-in companion and housekeeper, as well as his eventual lover, died in 1687; Hooke was inconsolable at the loss.

Hooke's career was marred by arguments with other prominent scientists. He often sparred with fellow Englishman Isaac Newton, including one 1686 dispute over Hooke's possible influence on Newton's famous book Principia Mathematica.

In his last year of life, Hooke suffered from symptoms that may have been caused by diabetes. He died at the age of 62 in London on March 3, 1703.

John Arbuthnot Biography

Doctor, Mathematician, Author (c. 1667-1735)


Scholar John Arbuthnot was born in April, 1667 in Inverbervie, Scotland. Mathematician and physician to Queen Anne, his political writing included The History of John Bull, an 18th-century satirical personification of England. He was also a founding member of the Scriblerus Club, which aimed to ridicule bad literature and false learning. Arbuthnot died on February 27, 1735 in London, England.

Early Life

John Arbuthnot was born in Inverbervie, Scotland in April 1667 and baptized on the 29th of that month. The eldest of his parents' seven surviving children, John followed his sire's lead, attending Marischal College, Aberdeen and graduating in 1685. His father, an Episcopalian minister, refused to conform to the Presbyterian system leaders William and Mary insisted upon, so he lost his position and living in 1689. John tended to his father's papers at his death in 1691, then left for London.

Math, Medicine and Writing Career

The next year, after finding employment as a math tutor, Arbuthnot translated and published Of the Laws of Chance from a Dutch book on probability, adding many more games of chance such as backgammon and whist to the treatise.

He moved to Oxford with a student he was tutoring, where he met luminaries such as Isaac Newton and Samuel Pepys. Arbuthnot took to private study in medicine and eventually returned to Scotland, enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of St. Andrews, and defended his thesis and earned his degree all on the very same day.

Friend of Jonathan Swift

Arbuthnot continued to publish treatises on mathematics and other subjects, and was accepted as a fellow of the Royal Society. He was later called in to treat Prince George, the Danish husband of Queen Anne, and his success landed him the position as her physician. He remained so until her death in 1714, and became involved in politics.

Jonathan Swift become a lifelong friend and the two published satirical fare, often contributing to each other's material. Although he continued to write about mathematical subjects, Arbuthnot become best known for his collected work The History of John Bull, a humorous personification of England.

Death and Legacy

Overweight, with asthma and kidney stones, John Arbuthnot died on February 27, 1735 in London.

Along with Swift, Alexander Pope and other famous friends, Arbuthnot had formed the Scriblerus Club, dedicated to satirizing the abuses of learning. Because he didn't care about fame, much of his work is not attributed to him, but the group credited him as chief contributor, especially for The Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus. Samuel Johnson called him "a scholar with great brilliancy of wit..."

Alan Turing Biography

Educator, Mathematician (1912-1954)


“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”

--Alan Turing


Alan Turing was born on June 23, 1912, in London. In his seminal 1936 paper, he proved that there cannot exist any universal algorithmic method of determining truth in mathematics, and that mathematics will always contain undecidable propositions. That paper also introduced the "Turing machine. His papers on the subject are widely acknowledged as the foundation of research in artificial intelligence.

Early Life

English scientist Alan Turing was born Alan Mathison Turing on June 23, 1912, in Maida Vale, London, England. At a young age, he displayed signs of high intelligence, which some of his teachers recognized, but did not necessarily respect. When Turing attended the well-known independent Sherborne School at the age of 13, he became particularly interested in math and science.

After Sherborne, Turing enrolled at King's College (University of Cambridge) in Cambridge, England, studying there from 1931 to 1934. As a result of his dissertation, in which he proved the central limit theorem, Turing was elected a fellow at the school upon his graduation.

In 1936, Turing delivered a paper, "On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem," in which he presented the notion of a universal machine (later called the “Universal Turing Machine," and then the "Turing machine") capable of computing anything that is computable: The central concept of the modern computer was based on Turing's paper.

Over the next two years, Turing studied mathematics and cryptology at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. After receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1938, he returned to Cambridge, and then took a part-time position with the Government Code and Cypher School, a British code-breaking organization.

Cryptanalysis and Early Computers

During World War II, Turing was a leading participant in wartime code-breaking, particularly that of German ciphers. He worked at Bletchley Park, the GCCS wartime station, where he made five major advances in the field of cryptanalysis, including specifying the bombe, an electromechanical device used to help decipher German Enigma encrypted signals. Turing's contributions to the code-breaking process didn't stop there: He also wrote two papers about mathematical approaches to code-breaking, which became such important assets to the Code and Cypher School (later known as the Government Communications Headquarters) that the GCHQ waited until April 2012 to release them to the National Archives of the United Kingdom.

Turing moved to London in the mid-1940s, and began working for the National Physical Laboratory. Among his most notable contributions while working at the facility, Turing led the design work for the Automatic Computing Engine and ultimately created a groundbreaking blueprint for store-program computers. Though a complete version of the ACE was never built, its concept has been used as a model by tech corporations worldwide for several years, influencing the design of the English Electric DEUCE and the American Bendix G-15--credited by many in the tech industry as the world's first personal computer--among other computer models.

Turing went on to hold high-ranking positions in the mathematics department and later the computing laboratory at the University of Manchester in the late 1940s. He first addressed the issue of artificial intelligence in his 1950 paper, "Computing machinery and intelligence," and proposed an experiment known as the “Turing Test”--an effort to create an intelligence design standard for the tech industry. Over the past several decades, the test has significantly influenced debates over artificial intelligence.

Homosexuality, Conviction and Death

Homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s, so when Turing admitted to police--who he called to his house after a break-in--in January, 1952, that he had had a sexual relationship with the perpetrator, 19-year-old Arnold Murray, he was charged with gross indecency. Following his arrest, Turing was forced to choose between temporary probation on the condition that he receive hormonal treatment for libido reduction, or imprisonment. He chose the former, and soon underwent chemical castration through injections of a synthetic estrogen hormone for a year, which eventually rendered him impotent.

As a result of his conviction, Turing's security clearance was removed and he was barred from continuing his work with cryptography at the GCCS, which had become the GCHQ in 1946.

Turing died on June 7, 1954. Following a postmortem exam, it was determined that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. The remains of an apple were found next to the body, though no apple parts were found in his stomach. The autopsy reported that "four ounces of fluid which smelled strongly of bitter almonds, as does a solution of cyanide" was found in the stomach. Trace smell of bitter almonds was also reported in vital organs. The autopsy concluded that the cause of death was asphyxia due to cyanide poisoning and ruled a suicide.

In a June 2012 BBC article, philosophy professor and Turing expert Jack Copeland argued that Turing's death may have been an accident: The apple was never tested for cyanide, nothing in the accounts of Turing's last days suggested he was suicidal and Turing had cyanide in his house for chemical experiments he conducted in his spare room.

Isaac Newton Biography

Philosopher, Mathematician, Astronomer, Physicist, Scientist (1643-1727)

English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, most famous for his law of gravitation, was instrumental in the scientific revolution of the 17th century.


Born on January 4, 1643, in Woolsthorpe, England, Isaac Newton was an established physicist and mathematician, and is credited as one of the great minds of the 17th century Scientific Revolution. With discoveries in optics, motion and mathematics, Newton developed the principles of modern physics. In 1687, he published his most acclaimed work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), which has been called the single most influential book on physics. Newton died in London on March 31, 1727.

Early Life

On January 4, 1643, Isaac Newton was born in the hamlet of Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England. He was the only son of a prosperous local farmer, also named Isaac Newton, who died three months before he was born. A premature baby born tiny and weak, Newton was not expected to survive. When he was 3 years old, his mother, Hannah Ayscough Newton, remarried a well-to-do minister, Barnabas Smith, and went to live with him, leaving young Newton with his maternal grandmother. The experience left an indelible imprint on Newton, later manifesting itself as an acute sense of insecurity. He anxiously obsessed over his published work, defending its merits with irrational behavior.

At age 12, Newton was reunited with his mother after her second husband died. She brought along her three small children from her second marriage. Newton had been enrolled at the King's School in Grantham, a town in Lincolnshire, where he lodged with a local apothecary and was introduced to the fascinating world of chemistry. His mother pulled him out of school, for her plan was to make him a farmer and have him tend the farm. Newton failed miserably, as he found farming monotonous.

He soon was sent back to King's School to finish his basic education. Perhaps sensing the young man's innate intellectual abilities, his uncle, a graduate of the University of Cambridge's Trinity College, persuaded Newton's mother to have him enter the university. Newton enrolled in a program similar to a work-study in 1661, and subsequently waited on tables and took care of wealthier students' rooms.

When Newton arrived at Cambridge, the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century was already in full force. The heliocentric view of the universe--theorized by astronomers Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, and later refined by Galileo--was well known in most European academic circles. Philosopher Renй Descartes had begun to formulate a new concept of nature as an intricate, impersonal and inert machine. Yet, like most universities in Europe, Cambridge was steeped in Aristotelian philosophy and a view of nature resting on a geocentric view of the universe, dealing with nature in qualitative rather than quantitative terms.

During his first three years at Cambridge, Newton was taught the standard curriculum but was fascinated with the more advanced science. All his spare time was spent reading from the modern philosophers. The result was a less-than-stellar performance, but one that is understandable, given his dual course of study. It was during this time that Newton kept a second set of notes, entitled "Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae" ("Certain Philosophical Questions"). The "Quaestiones" reveal that Newton had discovered the new concept of nature that provided the framework for the Scientific Revolution.

Though Newton graduated with no honors or distinctions, his efforts won him the title of scholar and four years of financial support for future education. Unfortunately, in 1665, the Great Plague that was ravaging Europe had come to Cambridge, forcing the university to close. Newton returned home to pursue his private study. It was during this 18-month hiatus that he conceived the method of infinitesimal calculus, set foundations for his theory of light and color, and gained significant insight into the laws of planetary motion--insights that eventually led to the publication of his Principia in 1687. Legend has it that, at this time, Newton experienced his famous inspiration of gravity with the falling apple.

When the threat of plague subsided in 1667, Newton returned to Cambridge and was elected a minor fellow at Trinity College, as he was still not considered a standout scholar. However, in the ensuing years, his fortune improved. Newton received his Master of Arts degree in 1669, before he was 27. During this time, he came across Nicholas Mercator's published book on methods for dealing with infinite series. Newton quickly wrote a treatise, De Analysi, expounding his own wider-ranging results. He shared this with friend and mentor Isaac Barrow, but didn't include his name as author.

In June 1669, Barrow shared the unaccredited manuscript with British mathematician John Collins. In August 1669, Barrow identified its author to Collins as "Mr. Newton ... very young ... but of an extraordinary genius and proficiency in these things." Newton's work was brought to the attention of the mathematics community for the first time. Shortly afterward, Barrow resigned his Lucasian professorship at Cambridge, and Newton assumed the chair.

Euphemia Lofton Haynes Biography

Mathematician (1890-1980)

Euphemia Lofton Haynes became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1943.


Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Euphemia Lofton Haynes made her name in D.C.'s academic realm over the course of her career. After earning degrees in both mathematics and education, in 1943, Haynes became the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. She then took the educational system by storm, teaching in a wide variety of settings and pushing continually to change the face of education, which, at the time, often found black students falling into a system of de facto segregation. Haynes was equally passionate about the Catholic Church, which she served until her death in 1980.

Early Years

Euphemia Lofton Haynes was born Martha Euphemia Lofton on September 11, 1890, in Washington, D.C. Her father was a prominent black dentist known for backing African-American businesses in the D.C. area, and her mother was active in the Catholic Church--a trait that would carry on to Euphemia.

After graduating from M St. High School in 1907 and Miner Normal School in 1909, Haynes went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics from Smith College. She soon married childhood friend Harold Appo Haynes, who, like Haynes, would later became an influential leader in Washington's African-American school system.

Historic First

In 1930, Haynes received a master's degree in education from the University of Chicago. That same year, she founded the math department at Miner Teachers College (later renamed the University of the District of Columbia), which focused on training African-American teachers. Also becoming a professor at the college in 1930, Haynes remained head of the school's math department for nearly 30 years.

In addition to her educational roles during this time, Haynes continued her studies in mathematics, and in 1943 she earned a Ph.D. degree in the subject--making her the first black woman to do so--from the Catholic University of America.

A Long and Influential Career

Upon receiving her doctorate degree, Euphemia Lofton Haynes began what would be a 47-year-long journey through the D.C. area's academic realm, and over the course of her career, many area schools would be touched by her influence.

Haynes taught mathematics at Armstrong High School, served as an English teacher at Miner Normal School and taught math as chair of the department at Dunbar High School, the premier D.C. African-American high school. She was also a professor of mathematics at the District of Columbia Teachers College, where she served as chair of the Division of Mathematics and Business Education.

From these positions, Haynes was vocal in her advocacy for poor students and better schools, denouncing the system's segregation-tinged policies.

Later Years and Legacy

Continuing her advocacy efforts after retiring in 1959, Haynes devoted herself to many causes and organizations, among them the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women, Committee of International Social Welfare and Executive Committee of the National Social Welfare Assembly. She also co-founded the Catholic Interracial Council of the District of Columbia.

For her efforts on behalf of the Catholic Church, Haynes was awarded a papal medal, the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, in 1959. She joined the District of Columbia Board of Education the following year and became its president in 1966, continuing to fight racial segregation.

Haynes died on July 25, 1980, at the age of 89, in Washington, D.C. Upon her death, the Catholic University of America received a bequest of $700,000 from her estate, with which they endowed a chair and established a student loan fund in their education department.

P.A.M. Dirac Biography

Academic, Educator, Mathematician, Physicist, Scientist (1902-1984)

Physicist and mathematician P.A.M Dirac, who helped found quantum electrodynamics, is known for the Dirac equation and his prediction of antiparticles. He won the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics with Erwin Schrцdinger.


“One should allow oneself to be led in the direction which the mathematics suggests ... one must follow up a mathematical idea and see what its consequences are, even though one gets led to a domain which is completely foreign to what one started with ...Mathematics can lead us in a direction we would not take if we only followed up physical ideas by themselves.” --P.A.M. Dirac


P.A.M Dirac was born on August 8, 1902, in Bristol, England. In 1926, he developed the first complete, formal mathematical representation of quantum mechanics. In 1928, he published the Dirac equation. In 1933, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Dirac left his professorship at the University of Cambridge in 1969, and accepted another in 1971 at Florida State University. He died in Tallahassee, Florida, on October 20, 1984.

Early Years

Physicist and mathematician P.A.M. Dirac was born Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac to a British mother and a Swiss father on August 8, 1902, in Bristol, England. His father, a French teacher, was harsh--not only with his students, but to P.A.M. and his two siblings. As a result, P.A.M. was a shy child who would grow into a socially awkward adult.

During his school days at Bishop Primary School and Merchant's Venture Secondary School, Dirac showed a prodigal gift for math. After graduating from secondary school, in 1918 Dirac enrolled at Bristol University, entering the school's Electrical Engineering Program and graduating first in his class in 1921. Unable to find a job upon graduating, for the next two years, Dirac studied math at Bristol, becoming a mathematics research student at the University of Cambridge afterward. By 1926, he'd received his Ph.D. from Cambridge. A year later, he assumed a fellowship at St. John's College.

Quantum Mechanics

Using his research grant at St. John's, P.A.M. Dirac began puzzling over a mathematical equivalent of Werner Heisenberg's new quantum mechanics. Dirac wrote several papers explaining his use of non-communicative algebra to calculate the properties of an atom. In 1926, Dirac used the matrix approach in combination with wave mechanics to develop the first complete, formal mathematical representation of quantum mechanics. In the process, he managed to pioneer Fermi-Dirac statistics, which extrapolated on Enrico Fermi's earlier theories.

Quantum Electrodynamics

After concluding that the fundamental laws of atomic particles are probabilistic, Dirac shifted his attention to developing his 1927 quantum theory of radiation. His theory gave birth to the concept of quantum electrodynamics. In 1928, he published the most significant feat of his career, the electron's relativistic wave equation, called the Dirac equation. His theory of the electron, as well as his prediction of antiparticles, became Dirac's major claims to fame. His theories were not without their snags, however.

In the early 1930s, Dirac came up with the "many-time formulation" as a means of solving problems in his earlier theories of quantum electrodynamics. In 1932, he accepted a mathematics professorship at Cambridge. A year later, he was co-awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics with Erwin Schrцdinger. In 1934, Dirac pioneered the concept of vacuum polarization.

Personal Life

In 1937, Dirac married a Hungarian woman named Margit Wigner, whose brother was famed physicist Eugene Wigner; the couple raised Margit's children from a previous marriage, Judith and Gabriel. Both children adopted Dirac's last name, and Gabriel grew up to become a famed mathematician. Margit also gave Dirac two biological daughters: Mary Elizabeth and Florence Monica.

Later Life

Dirac retired from his professorship at Cambridge in 1969. In 1971, he became a professor at Florida State University, Tallahassee, where he continued his research. Dirac retained the position until his death, on October 20, 1984, in Tallahassee, Florida.

scholar biography achievement science

Robert Metcalfe Biography

Mathematician, Inventor (1946-)

Brooklyn-born Robert Metcalfe is an engineer, technology executive and venture capitalist best known for inventing Ethernet.


Robert Metcalfe,engineer, technology executive and venture capitalist, invented the Ethernet. He attended MIT and Harvard University, studying mathematics and computer science, before joining Xerox's Palo Alto Research center. It was there that he was inspired to invent the Ethernet in 1973, which allowed computers to send packets of information and avoid collisions with incoming packets.

Jack of All Tech Trades

Engineer, technology executive, venture capitalist. Born April 7, 1946 in Brooklyn, New York.

It's hard to guess just what Robert Metcalfe might be up to in a given year. From inventing Ethernet, the networking system which allowed personal computers to communicate with each other in the 1970s, he went on to found the multibillion-dollar company 3Com, then later quit to become a technology pundit. These days, when not writing his nationally syndicated InfoWorld column or making brash predictions about the future of the Net at industry conferences, you might find him with his wife, Robyn, tending to 200-pound rare pigs on the couple's 450-acre Kelmscott Farms in Maine.

Early Life

Born in Brooklyn, Metcalfe grew up on Long Island, New York, the son of an engineering technician. As an electrical engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), Metcalfe showed little inclination to sleep. He paid for college by working nights as a computer programmer, from midnight to 8:00 a.m. Then he'd hit the tennis courts for several hours a day, as captain of the tennis team. After graduating from M.I.T in 1967, he enrolled as a graduate student in applied mathematics. However, this solid middle-class student found the elitist attitude at the school grating, and he spent his free hours working in a computer lab at M.I.T. There, he was assigned the task of building an interface allowing early Internet servers to talk to each other.

Tech Ventures

After completing his Ph.D. in computer science at Harvard University, Metcalfe was hired to join Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). There, he was charged with tying together prototypes of a new personal computer called the Alto which used a graphic interface and mouse. Fortunately, Metcalfe accidentally ran across a paper at a friend's house, detailing the workings of the Aloha Net in Hawaii. Although Metcalfe spotted several errors, he was inspired by the network, and flew to Hawaii to study it. In 1973, he invented Ethernet, which allowed computers to send packets of information and avoid collisions with incoming packets.


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