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Benjamin Peirce (1809 – 1880)


American mathematician who taught at Harvard University for forty years.
Benjamin Peirce
I always had the feeling that his attitude toward his loved science was that of a devoted worshipper, rather than a clear expounder. Although we could rarely follow him, we certainly sat up and took notice. ... To him mathematics was not a humanly devised instrument of investigation, it was Philosophy itself, the divine revealer of TRUTH.
Peirce quotes
His talk was informal, often far above their heads. "Do you follow me?" asked the Professor one day. No one could say Yes. "I'm not surprised," said he; "I know of only three persons who could." At Paris, the year after, at the great Exposition, Flagg stood before a mural tablet whereon were inscribed the names of the great mathematicians of the earth for more than two thousand years. Archimedes headed, Peirce closed the list; the only American.
Peirce
Looking back over the space of fifty years since I entered Harvard College, Benjamin Peirce still impresses me as having the most massive intellect with which I have ever come in contact, and as being the most profoundly inspiring teacher I ever had. ... As soon as he had finished the problem or filled the blackboard he would rub everything out and begin again. He was impatient of detail, and sometimes the result would not come out right; but instead of going over his work to find the error, he would rub it out, saying that he had made a mistake in a sign somewhere, and that we should find it when we went over our notes. Described in this way it may seem strange that such a method of teaching should be inspiring; yet to us it was so to the highest degree. We were carried along by the rush of his thought, by the ease and grasp of his intellectual movement. The inspiration came, I think, partly from his treating us as highly competent pupils, capable of following his line of thought even through errors in transformations; partly from his rapid and graceful methods of proof, which reached a result with the least number of steps in the process, attaining thereby an artistic or literary character; and partly from the quality of his mind which tended to regard any mathematical theorem as a particular case of some more comprehensive one, so that we were led onward to constantly enlarging truths.




Peirce Benjamin quotes
Gentlemen, that is surely true, it is absolutely paradoxical; we cannot understand it, and we don't know what it means. But we have proved it, and therefore we know it must be the truth.
Peirce Benjamin
He gave us his "Curves and Functions", in the form of lectures; and sometimes, even while stating his propositions, he would be seized with some mathematical inspiration, would forget pupils, notes, everything, and would rapidly dash off equation after equation, following them out with smaller and smaller chalk-marks into the remote corners of the blackboard, forsaking his delightful task only when there was literally no more space to be covered, and coming back with a sigh to his actual students. There was a great fascination about these interruptions; we were present, as it seemed, at mathematics in the making; it was like peeping into a necromancer's cell, and seeing him at work; or as if our teacher were one of the old Arabian algebraists recalled to life.
Benjamin Peirce quotes
Throughout nature the omnipresent beautiful revealed an all-pervading language spoken to the human mind, and to man's highest capacity of comprehension. By whom was it spoken? Whether by the gods of the ocean, or the land, by the ruling divinities of the sun, moon, and stars, or by the dryads of the forest and the nymphs of the fountain, it was one speech and its written cipher was cabalistic. The cabala were those of number, and even if they transcended the gemetricl skill of the Rabbi and the hieroglyphical learning of the priest of Osiris, they were, distinctly and unmistakably, expressions of thought uttered to mind by mind; they were the solutions of mathematical problems of extraordinary complexity.
Benjamin Peirce
Mathematics is the science which draws necessary conclusions.
Peirce Benjamin quotes
Benjamin Peirce deserves recognition, not only as a founding father of American mathematics, but also as a founding father of modern abstract algebra.
Peirce
It is not given to us it is given to but few men of any generation to roam those Alpine solitudes of science to which his genius reached.
Peirce Benjamin
Of the great mathematician as an instructor several of his pupils who ventured on the higher planes of the science have written. These were youths who, though they could follow him but a few steps in that rarefied atmosphere, had the privilege of a glimpse now and then into shining infinities wherein this giant sped rejoicing on.
Benjamin Peirce
There is proof enough furnished by every science, but by none more than geometry, that the world to which we have been allotted is peculiarly adapted to our minds, and admirably fitted to promote our intellectual progress. There can be no reasonable doubt that it was part of the Creator's plan. How easily might the whole order have been transposed! How readily might we have been assigned to some complicated system which our feeble and finite powers could not have unravelled!




Benjamin Peirce quotes
Benjamin Peirce's lectures dealt, to be sure, with the higher mathematics, but also with theories of the universe and the infinities of nature, and with man's power to deal with infinities and infinitesimals alike. His University Lectures were many a time way over the heads of his audience, but his aspect, his manner, and his whole personality held and delighted them.
Benjamin Peirce
I presume that to the uninitiated the formulae will appear cold and cheerless; but let it be remembered that, like other mathematical formulae, they find their origin in the divine source of all geometry. Whether I shall have the satisfaction of taking part in their exposition, or whether that will remain for some more profound expositor, will be seen in the future.
Peirce quotes
There are many cases of these algebras which may obviously be combined into natural classes, but the consideration of this portion of the subject will be reserved to subsequent researches.
Peirce Benjamin
He was one of the most stimulating men I have ever known.
Peirce Benjamin quotes
The very spirits of the winds, when they were sent to carry the grateful harvest to the thirsting fields of Calabria, did not forget the geometry which they had studied in the caverns of ?olus and of which the geologist is daily discovering the diagrams.
Benjamin Peirce
Ascend with me above the dust, above the cloud, to the realms of the higher geometry, where the heavens are never clouded; where there is no impure vapour, and no delusive or imperfect observation, where the new truths are already arisen, while they are yet dimly dawning on the world below; where the earth is a little planet; where the sun has dwindled to a star; where all the stars are lost in the Milky Way to which they belong; where the Milky Way is seen floating through space like any other nebula; where the whole great girdle of nebulae has diminished to an atom and has become as readily and completely submissive to the pen of the geometer, and the slave of his formula, as the single drop, which falls from the clouds, instinct with all the forces of the material world.
Benjamin Peirce quotes
When this wizard stepped down from his post, crossed his moat, and opened his garden gate, nothing could be more attractive than the vistas and plantations he opened to our view. ... Few men could suggest more while saying so little, or stimulate so much while communicating next to nothing that was tangible and comprehensible. The young man that would learn the true meaning of apprehension as distinct from comprehension, should have heard the professor lecture...
Benjamin Peirce
He was such a great, big ray of Light and Goodness, always so simple, cheerful and showing more than amiability, that his great power did not seem to assert itself.
Peirce Benjamin
Peirce stood alone a mountain peak whose absolute height might be hard to measure, but which towered above the surrounding country.


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