www.whyville.net Oct 7, 1999 Weekly Issue

John Napier

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      Have you noticed that the streets of Myville 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 the inventor of logarithms.

by Lois Lee
Times Staff

For decades, the application of trigonometric mathematics to astronomy was held in check because of the difficulties in multiplying one sine function by another. They didn't seem to have an easy answer; when you wanted to know a particular number, you had to work it all out yourself. John Napier (1550 - 1614), inventor of the logarithmic function, spent twenty years in search of a way to put together simplified multiplication tables for sines.

At first, he tried to calculate them by using arithmatic and geometric progressions of large numbers. Eventually he found an incredible short cut: by using the ratios between the numbers involved, everything simplified beautifully. Nowadays we use calculators and computers to do what it took John Napier (and many other mathematicians) twenty years to figure out. A brilliant application of pure mathematics to a real world need, Napier's logarithms expanded the mathematical tools of scientists and engineers everywhere.

Click here to learn more about John Napier.

John Napier, a smart (but scary-looking) guy


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