SITE VISIT: Matching Faces With Numbers

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Science  11 Feb 2000:
Vol. 287, Issue 5455, pp. 927
DOI: 10.1126/science.287.5455.927b

The Witch of Agnesi, the bicorn, and the trisectrix of MacLaurin may sound like names out of Arthurian legend, but they're mathematical curves. The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive is packed with graphs, definitions, and even Java applets for playing with famous curves like Agnesi's, a pointy hill shape studied by 18th century mathematician Maria Agnesi. Aimed at high school and college students, the archive also serves up bite-size histories of everything from Islamic math to “orbits and gravitation.”

But the heart of the site is its trove of biographies. Mathematicians John O'Connor and Andrew Robertson of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have compiled nearly 1400 short profiles of famous mathematicians indexed in various ways—you can even search by quotation or birthplace. The blurbs summarize the lives and works of everyone from the mystical Pythagoras to Andrew Wiles, who solved Fermat's Last Theorem in 1994. Those with a taste for math's dramatic side might check out the profiles of Georg Cantor, who founded set theory and went mad, dying in an insane asylum in 1918, and 18th century algebraist Evariste Galois, killed in a duel at age 20. There is even an image of Galois's furious scribblings the night before his death—a snippet reads: “There is something to complete in this demonstration. I do not have the time.”

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