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Eric Temple Bell
Bell as pictured in Wonder Stories in 1931
|Born||February 7, 1883|
Peterhead, Scotland, UK
|Died||December 21, 1960 (aged 77)|
|Alma mater||Stanford University|
Columbia University (Ph.D.)
|Known for||Number theory|
Ordered Bell numbers
|Awards||Bôcher Memorial Prize (1924)|
|Institutions||University of Washington|
California Institute of Technology
|Doctoral advisor||Frank Nelson Cole|
|Doctoral students||Howard Percy Robertson|
Eric Temple Bell (February 7, 1883 – December 21, 1960) was a Scottish-born mathematician and science fiction writer who lived in the United States for most of his life. He published non-fiction using his given name and fiction as John Taine.
Bell was born in Peterhead, Aberdeen, Scotland, but his father, a factor, relocated to San Jose, California in 1884, when he was fifteen months old. The family returned to Bedford, England after his father's death, on January 4, 1896. Bell returned to the United States by way of Montreal in 1902.
Bell was educated at Bedford Modern School, where his teacher Edward Mann Langley inspired him to continue the study of mathematics, Stanford University, the University of Washington, and Columbia University (where he was a student of Cassius Jackson Keyser). He was part of the faculty first at the University of Washington and later at the California Institute of Technology.
He researched number theory; see in particular Bell series. He attempted—not altogether successfully—to make the traditional umbral calculus (understood at that time to be the same thing as the "symbolic method" of Blissard) logically rigorous. He also did much work using generating functions, treated as formal power series, without concern for convergence. He is the eponym of the Bell polynomials and the Bell numbers of combinatorics. In 1924 he was awarded the Bôcher Memorial Prize for his work in mathematical analysis. He died in 1960 in Watsonville, California.
During the early 1920s, Bell wrote several long poems. He also wrote several science fiction novels, which independently invented some of the earliest devices and ideas of science fiction. Only the novel The Purple Sapphire was published at the time, using the pseudonym John Taine; this was before Hugo Gernsback and the genre publication of science fiction. His novels were published later, both in book form and serialized in magazines. Basil Davenport, writing in The New York Times, described Taine as "one of the first real scientists to write science-fiction [who] did much to bring it out of the interplanetary cops-and-robbers stage." But he concluded that "[Taine] is sadly lacking as a novelist, in style and especially in characterization."
Bell wrote a book of biographical essays titled Men of Mathematics, (one chapter of which was the first popular account of the 19th century woman mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya) and which is still in print. The book inspired notable mathematicians including Julia Robinson, John Forbes Nash, Jr., and Andrew Wiles to begin a career as a mathematician. However, historians of mathematics have disputed the accuracy of much of Bell's history. In fact, Bell does not distinguish carefully between anecdote and history. He has been much criticized for romanticizing Évariste Galois. For example: "[E. T.] Bell's account [of Galois's life], by far the most famous, is also the most fictitious."
Bell's later book Development of Mathematics has been less famous, but Constance Reid finds it has fewer weaknesses.[page needed] The Last Problem is a hybrid, between a social history and a history of mathematics.
The only idea of real mathematics that I had came from Men of Mathematics. In it I got my first glimpse of a mathematician per se. I cannot overemphasize the importance of such books about mathematics in the intellectual life of a student like myself completely out of contact with research mathematicians.
By the time I was a student in high school I was reading the classic "Men of Mathematics" by E. T. Bell and I remember succeeding in proving the classic Fermat theorem about an integer multiplied by itself p times where p is a prime.
The fact that Wiles was stimulated in childhood by E. T. Bell's romantic personalized anecdotal book Men of Mathematics to nurse an ambition to solve the problem Fermat's Last Theorem is in itself an index of the power which a certain view of the history of mathematics can exercise.
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