Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 73:
EVARISTE GALOIS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 73.

Today, let's tell the remarkable tale of Evariste Galois. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Evariste Galois was the father of modern algebra. He was born in France in 1811, and he died of gunshot wounds 20 years and seven months later -- still a minor when his brief, turbulent life ended.

He began his career in mathematics by failing the entry exam for the Ecole Polytechnique twice because his answers were so odd. He was accepted into the Ecole Normale, only to be expelled when he attacked the director in a letter to the papers. A few months later, he was arrested for making a threatening speech against the king. He was acquitted, but then he was tossed right back into jail when he illegally wore a uniform and carried weapons. He spent the next eight months writing mathematics. But then, as soon as he got out, he was devastated by an unhappy love affair. I guess it'd be fair to say he was a typical bright young teenager.

For some murky reason -- maybe underhanded police work -- he was challenged to a duel on May 30th, 1832 -- a duel he couldn't win but which he couldn't dodge, either. By then his talents as a mathematician were known. He'd published some material, and luminaries like Gauss, Jacobi, and Cauchy knew of him.

On May 29th, he wrote and wrote. That day and night he wrote a letter that included most of the 100 or so pages of mathematics he'd produced during his entire short life. He set down what proved to be the very foundations of modern algebra and group theory. Some of the theorems he wrote that night weren't proved for a century. He faced death with a cool desperation, reaching down inside himself and getting at truths we do not know how he found.

His fright and arrogance were mixed. The letter was peppered with asides. On the one hand he wrote: "I do not say to anyone that I owe to his counsel or ... encouragement [what] is good in this work." But, on the other hand, he penned in the margins, "I have no time!" When poet Carol Drake heard his story, she wrote:

Until the sun I have no time

But the flash of thought is like the sun --
sudden, absolute:
Watch at the desk, through the window raised on the
flawless dark, the hand that trembles in the light,
Lucid, sudden.

Until the sun I have no time, ...
I cry to you I have no time --

Watch. This light is like the sun
Illumining grass, seacoast, this death --

I have no time. Be thou my time.

The next morning Galois was shot -- two days later, dead. But he'd done more for his world in one night than most of us will do in a lifetime, because he knew he could find something in that moment that he had to look inside himself.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Dictionary of Scientific Biography (C. C. Gillespie, ed.). New York: Charles. Scribner and Sons, 1974.

Lines from the unpublished work: Antiphon for Evariste Galois (1957) are used with the permission of Carol Christopher Drake. The full text of the poem is this:

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1475.


ANTIPHON FOR EVARISTE GALOIS
 Until the sun I have no time

 

  But the flash of thought is like the sun

  Sudden, absolute:     



  watch at the desk

  Through the window raised on the flawless dark, 

  The hand that trembles in the light,

  Lucid, sudden.         
Until the sun

I have no time



  The image is swift,

  Without recall, but the mind holds

  To the form of thought, its shape of sense

  Coherent to an unknown time --



I have no time and wholly my risk

Is out of time; I have no time, 

I cry to you I have no time --



  Watch.  This light is like the sun

  Illumining grass, seacoast, this death --



I have no time.  Be thou my time.





The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode