Book Corner: x + y = death2

David K. Israel

I had no idea there was so much drama wrapped up in the evolution of algebra. For instance, did you know that George Boole, who invented algebraic ways to express logical arguments, died after his wife threw buckets of ice-water on him to "“ get this "“ treat a chill! Then there was the French mathematician, Evariste Galois, who became famous for his work on the algebraic structure of solutions, but only 10 years after his death. How'd the 20-year-old mathematician die? In a pistol duel, naturally.

Though not killed dramatically, nor even killed for that matter, some more algebraic drama unfolded in the 1870s when a Norwegian mathematician named Sophus Lie (no lie) was arrested when the police thought him a spy after finding him with a satchel full of indecipherable mathematical notes.

Anyway, if you're wondering how I now know all this, it's mostly thanks to a new book called Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra, by John Derbyshire. In addition to those "killer" anecdotes, you can read all about Rene Descartes, who introduced the x and y stand-ins (a common belief is that Descartes choice of a printer was running low on y's and z's).