(31 Oct 1815 - 19 Feb 1897)
Science Quotes by Karl Weierstrass, (2 quotes)
It is true that a mathematician who is not somewhat of a poet, will never be a perfect mathematician.
— Karl Weierstrass,
The more I meditate on the principles of the theory of functions—and I do this unremittingly the stronger becomes my conviction that the foundations upon which these must be built are the truths of Algebra…
— Karl Weierstrass,
Quotes by others about Karl Weierstrass, (8)
Men of science belong to two different types—the logical and the intuitive. Science owes its progress to both forms of minds. Mathematics, although a purely logical structure, nevertheless makes use of intuition. Among the mathematicians there are intuitives and logicians, analysts and geometricians. Hermite and Weierstrass were intuitives. Riemann and Bertrand, logicians. The discoveries of intuition have always to be developed by logic.
It is not surprising, in view of the polydynamic constitution of the genuinely mathematical mind, that many of the major heros of the science, men like Desargues and Pascal, Descartes and Leibnitz, Newton, Gauss and Bolzano, Helmholtz and Clifford, Riemann and Salmon and Plücker and Poincaré, have attained to high distinction in other fields not only of science but of philosophy and letters too. And when we reflect that the very greatest mathematical achievements have been due, not alone to the peering, microscopic, histologic vision of men like Weierstrass, illuminating the hidden recesses, the minute and intimate structure of logical reality, but to the larger vision also of men like Klein who survey the kingdoms of geometry and analysis for the endless variety of things that flourish there, as the eye of Darwin ranged over the flora and fauna of the world, or as a commercial monarch contemplates its industry, or as a statesman beholds an empire; when we reflect not only that the Calculus of Probability is a creation of mathematics but that the master mathematician is constantly required to exercise judgment—judgment, that is, in matters not admitting of certainty—balancing probabilities not yet reduced nor even reducible perhaps to calculation; when we reflect that he is called upon to exercise a function analogous to that of the comparative anatomist like Cuvier, comparing theories and doctrines of every degree of similarity and dissimilarity of structure; when, finally, we reflect that he seldom deals with a single idea at a tune, but is for the most part engaged in wielding organized hosts of them, as a general wields at once the division of an army or as a great civil administrator directs from his central office diverse and scattered but related groups of interests and operations; then, I say, the current opinion that devotion to mathematics unfits the devotee for practical affairs should be known for false on a priori grounds. And one should be thus prepared to find that as a fact Gaspard Monge, creator of descriptive geometry, author of the classic Applications de l’analyse à la géométrie; Lazare Carnot, author of the celebrated works, Géométrie de position, and Réflections sur la Métaphysique du Calcul infinitesimal; Fourier, immortal creator of the Théorie analytique de la chaleur; Arago, rightful inheritor of Monge’s chair of geometry; Poncelet, creator of pure projective geometry; one should not be surprised, I say, to find that these and other mathematicians in a land sagacious enough to invoke their aid, rendered, alike in peace and in war, eminent public service.
Objections … inspired Kronecker and others to attack Weierstrass’ “sequential” definition of irrationals. Nevertheless, right or wrong, Weierstrass and his school made the theory work. The most useful results they obtained have not yet been questioned, at least on the ground of their great utility in mathematical analysis and its implications, by any competent judge in his right mind. This does not mean that objections cannot be well taken: it merely calls attention to the fact that in mathematics, as in everything else, this earth is not yet to be confused with the Kingdom of Heaven, that perfection is a chimaera, and that, in the words of Crelle, we can only hope for closer and closer approximations to mathematical truth—whatever that may be, if anything—precisely as in the Weierstrassian theory of convergent sequences of rationals defining irrationals.
The arithmetization of mathematics … which began with Weierstrass … had for its object the separation of purely mathematical concepts, such as number and correspondence and aggregate, from intuitional ideas, which mathematics had acquired from long association with geometry and mechanics. These latter, in the opinion of the formalists, are so firmly entrenched in mathematical thought that in spite of the most careful circumspection in the choice of words, the meaning concealed behind these words, may influence our reasoning. For the trouble with human words is that they possess content, whereas the purpose of mathematics is to construct pure thought. But how can we avoid the use of human language? The … symbol. Only by using a symbolic language not yet usurped by those vague ideas of space, time, continuity which have their origin in intuition and tend to obscure pure reason—only thus may we hope to build mathematics on the solid foundation of logic.
Inspiration plays no less a role in science than it does in the realm of art. It is a childish notion to think that a mathematician attains any scientifically valuable results by sitting at his desk with a ruler, calculating machines or other mechanical means. The mathematical imagination of a Weierstrass is naturally quite differently oriented in meaning and result than is the imagination of an artist, and differs basically in quality. But the psychological processes do not differ. Both are frenzy (in the sense of Plato’s “mania”) and “inspiration.”
One morning a great noise proceeded from one of the classrooms [of the Braunsberger gymnasium] and on investigation it was found that Weierstrass, who was to give the recitation, had not appeared. The director went in person to Weierstrass’ dwelling and on knocking was told to come in. There sat Weierstrass by a glimmering lamp in a darkened room though it was daylight outside. He had worked the night through and had not noticed the approach of daylight. When the director reminded him of the noisy throng of students who were waiting for him, his only reply was that he could impossibly interrupt his work; that he was about to make an important discovery which would attract attention in scientific circles.
Weierstrass related … that he followed Sylvester’s papers on the theory of algebraic forms very attentively until Sylvester began to employ Hebrew characters. That was more than he could stand and after that he quit him.
Who has studied the works of such men as Euler, Lagrange, Cauchy, Riemann, Sophus Lie, and Weierstrass, can doubt that a great mathematician is a great artist? The faculties possessed by such men, varying greatly in kind and degree with the individual, are analogous with those requisite for constructive art. Not every mathematician possesses in a specially high degree that critical faculty which finds its employment in the perfection of form, in conformity with the ideal of logical completeness; but every great mathematician possesses the rarer faculty of constructive imagination.
- 31 Oct - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Weierstrass's birth.