Review: Cyfri’n Cewri – Everything you wanted to know about Welsh mathematicians *But were afraid to ask
This book opens with a small provocation, suggesting that the listing of famous Welsh people, enwogion o fri in the National Anthem, Hen Wlad fy Nhadau is deficient in one regard, namely the absence of scientists. So this sparkling book is an attempt to set that straight by presenting the lives of twelve giants of mathematics who either came from Wales or taught in Wales, or sometimes both.
Its author, Gareth Ffowc Roberts has done more than anyone to demystify and represent mathematics in Wales through his books and daily maths puzzles on Twitter. Now he presents a selection of fascinating historical figures in a volume punctuated by appropriate and brain-stretching puzzles.
The book opens with one of the best known names, Robert Recorde, from Tenby who not only invented the equals sign = but also wrote the first maths books in English. While mathematics was his forte, politics was not and when he was in charge of the Royal Mints in Bristol, Dublin and London he accused his master, the Earl of Pembroke of siphoning off some of the money. Accused of slander Recorde found himself in court in a case he duly lost and as a consequence was fined £ 1000. Unable to pay this large sum Recorde ended up in debtors’ prison, where he died, too soon to find out that his name was eventually cleared.
Another Welshman who added a key symbol to the world of mathematics was William Jones who created the symbol Π , thus giving life to pi as it were. Jones’s life itself was a story and a half. Born in a cottage on Anglesey his skills were spotted by Lord Bulkeley who became his supporter, who found him work with a wealthy merchant who despatched the young man to the West Indies where he encountered the punishing work of slaves on sugar plantations. Jones fell in love with the sea and his first book, published when he was 28 years old, was the New Compendium of the Whole Art of Practical Navigation, a practical guide to the use of maths in maritime navigation. His later books attracted the attention of such scientific luminaries as Edmund Halley (he of comet fame) and Sir Isaac Newton and Jones had his portrait painted by William Hogarth and became Vice President of the Royal Society.
Two of the next vignettes were great contributors to the world of insurance. Richard Price and his nephew William Price both hailed from the Bridgend area. Price was, according to the historian John Davies, the most original thinker Wales ever produced, a staunch defender of freedom and a preacher who advocated American Independence. Price also contributed to an odd trinity of subjects, namely ethics, theology and statistics and is considered to be one of the founding fathers of insurance. His nephew, William, meanwhile worked as an actuary for the Equitable Life Assurance Society for 56 years until his retirement at the age of 80. The largely uneducated slate-worker Griffith Davies whose aptitude for trigonometry was allegedly used to test Telford’s bridge across the Menai Straits followed an unconventional path into mathematics which included doing sums very quickly on quarry slate when he was 14 years old. By the time he was 23 he had opened his own school in London – the Mathematical Academy on Lizard Street – offering lessons to both children and adults.
There is the occasional eccentric among the twelve people portrayed, not least George Hartley Bryan. There’s the story about him staying the night with a friend to avoid the dreadful weather although Bryan went back home through the bucketing rain to fetch his pyjamas. Or the story about him walking after a coal lorry on Bangor High Street doing sums in chalk on the back of it. But he was also a fine mathematician, one of the best in Britain who applied himself to learning how birds fly, resulting in his building an early aeroplane called ‘Bamboo Bird’ and writing a book, Stability in Aviation, which was pivotal in the development of aeronautics.
One of the most famous mathematicians in this selection is Bertrand Russell, the Monmouthshire man who escaped suicidal depression during his youth when he fell in love with the work of Euclid: ‘This was one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love. I had not imagined there was anything so delicious in the world.’ One of the founders of CND, it was widely believed that Russell was the link between Nikira Krushchev, the leader of the U.S.S.R and John F. Kennedy, the U.S. President during the Cuban missile crisis. His autobiography listed the three things that were most precious to Bertrand Russell, namely his need for love, his hunger for knowledge and his compassion for the suffering of his fellow man.
The biologist Lancelot Thomas Hogben was the Robert Recorde of the 20th century, a populariser of science whose book Mathematics for the Million was a best-seller while his studies of African toads led to developing a pregnancy test for women. Hogben invented one language, ‘Interglossa’ to rival Esperanto and fell in love with another, namely Welsh and wrote a curious novel Whales for the Welsh, composed entirely in words of one syllable.
The book is a veritable showcase of scientific flair and studied enquiry. The work of Evan James Williams led to the discover of a sub-atomic particle, the meson and brought him into the orbit of the likes of Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr while Donald Watts Davies, from Treorchy helped create the internet by developing ‘packet switching’ a system which allowed computers to speak to each other. The book concludes with a fond portrait of John Rigby whose gifts included being able to draw a perfect circle free hand and whose work produced art as well as insight, such as William Morris-like wallpaper designs and ornate prayer cushions to be used in Llandaff Cathedral.
Cyfri’n Cewri fair coasts along on the waves of Gareth Ffowc Roberts’ enthusiasm for the subject and the clear delight he has in the patterns and mysteries of the world, some of them solved by maths and others always tantalisingly out of reach. But Roberts’ real gift is presenting maths, this sometimes arcane-seeming branch of science, once thought of as a black art in itself as something understandable, human and altogether alive.
Cyfri’n Cewri is published by University of Wales Press and can be purchased here.