The Sciences

Mysterious Death of a Mathematician Finally Solved?

By Susan KruglinskiNov 21, 2005 12:00 AM


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On the morning of May 30, 1832, an unidentified man found Évariste Galois, one of history's greatest mathematicians, lying on the ground in a wooded area of Paris. He had been shot once in the stomach—during a duel—and died in Cochin Hospital the next day. He was only 20.

Since then, historians have argued over who shot Galois—father of the mathematical concept known as group theory—and what the fight was about. Some suggest the duel was set up by police to silence Galois, a revolutionary jailed twice for radical behavior. Others propose there was no duel and that Galois offered his life to stir up rebellion, furthering the Republican cause.

Scientists are also fascinated by the case. "How can you not be?" says Mario Livio, senior astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. "This is a romantic character and truly one of the most original thinkers in the history of science." Group theory, the study of symmetries, is the "bread and butter" of modern physics, says Livio.

So instead of looking at the heavens, Livio has turned to the past. He spent three years researching the case while writing a popular book on mathematics, The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved. He then came to a new hypothesis about the crime. Like several other investigators, he believes the fight was over a woman, a 17-year-old coquette named Stéphanie Potterin du Motel. But he also thinks Galois had more than one opponent: a lover she was seeing and an older man who eventually married her widowed mother. Livio believes Galois offended Stéphanie with "some careless words" and the two men defended her honor.

Livio knows that the story may never be completely nailed down. But he is used to uncertainty. "As a research scientist," he says, "the part of my job I enjoy the most is investigation."  

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