www.whyville.net Feb 24, 2000 Weekly Issue


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Have you noticed that the streets of Myville Old Town are all named after famous scientists and artists from the Renaissance? In case these folks aren??t so famous to you, you might want to follow along this series of articles, and get to know the person on whose street you??re living. This week's article is about a famous mathmatician.

by Lois Lee
Times Staff

Guillaume-Francois-Antoine de L'H??pital
1661 - 1704

Guillaume-Francois-Antoine de L'H??pital was born in Paris, in 1661. His father was a lieutenant in the army, and had plans for his son to follow in his footsteps. While de L'H??pital did serve for some time as captain in a cavalry regiment, luckily for the field of mathematics, he was forced to quit because of his extreme near-sightedness.

In school, he was not good in Latin, but showed talent in mathematics even very early on. By the age of fifteen, he had already solved a number of very difficult problems proposed by Pascal. While in the army, he studied mathematics in his tent, and, after his career in the army ended, he devoted himself to this subject.

In 1692, L'H??pital met Jean Bernoulli, and thus began a rather difficult friendship. In the beginning, they got along very well, discussing the current state of mathematics. When L'H??pital discovered that Bernoulli understood the newly published methods in calculus methods, he even paid Bernoulli to teach him these methods.

L'H??pital (The Turnbull Server)
L'H??pital was a bright student as always, and soon mastered these mathematical methods. In 1696, he published his famous work on the mathematical analysis of curves. This book is considered the first textbook written on differential calculus, which has become the mathematical language for describing practically everything that has to do with the laws of physics: anything from an apple falling to the ground to radio waves propagating in the air to the motion of planets in the sky! It is also used everyday in engineering: the automatic transmission of a car depends on differential calculus to decide when to shift gears, and the automatic pilot on an airplane relies on it for knowing how the plane is moving.

This book however also threw a wrench in L'H??pital and Bernoulli's friendship. Bernoulli was very upset because he didn't think he was properly credited, since much of the work in the book was apparently based off of his work. In L'H??pital's mind, however, he had made some important corrections to several errors, and so he really considered this work to be his own.

Although both men were elected to the Academy of Sciences of Paris, putting them in the company of other great minds like Newton, Huyghens, and Liebniz, this controversy stood between them right through L'H??pital's death in 1704.

Even after L'H??pital's death, Bernoulli protested that he should be recognized for his work in L'H??pital's calculus book.

Despite the controversy of whose work it was, one thing is clear: it takes a rare person to make breakthrough discoveries in mathematics, but it takes a rarer person still to write them down in a way that makes them understandable and useful to others, thereby allowing these discoveries to contribute to more and more areas of study.

Guillaume-Francois-Antoine de L'H??pital was such a person.

Click here to learn more about L'H??pital.


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