The top five most influential mathematicians

by Kevin on April 7, 2009

Who are the top five most influential mathematicians? I have five in mind that are important and are helpful when teaching math as related to MathCounts. Many students do not know of any mathematicians and I think it is important to teach some of the more important and influential mathematicians. It is also possible to study some of the lesser known but just as important mathematicians, but that would be for a more advanced class. I usually have the students learn some basic facts and the date of birth using the Peg System. Here are my top five. What do you think?

1. Carl Friedrich Gauss 1777-1855

Gauss is the undisputed champ in my book. His great genius was demonstrated at a young age. When he was in school, his teacher gave the class a task that he thought would take a long time to complete. His task was to sum the first 100 numbers. Gauss completed the task in a very short time. Much later, when the teacher checked the answers, Gauss had the correct answer. He summed the first hundred numbers not by addition, but by multiplication. He found that there are 50 pairs of 101. And 50 x 101 = 5050. He would always tell this story later in his life on how he was the first to complete the task.

He did not publish much and his motto of  ” few, but ripe” reflected his style of not publishing his mathematics until it was polished to perfection. Many times, other mathematicians would publish their findings and Gauss would say that he already knew about it. His work in number theory has shaped the way it is presented today.

2. Archimedes  cira 287-212 B.C.

Archimedes spent most of his productive years in Syracuse. Many engineering students  know him for his mechanical contraptions such as the screw pump, a claw that could flip a ship, and the heat ray that would use mirrors to burn a hole in a ship and sink it. In mathematics, he gave very close approximations of pi. Archimedes was always more interested in the theoretical studies than the more practical applications of his inventions. He died when a Roman soldier killed him after Archimedes refused to move away from his geometry problem that he was working on in the sand with a stick.

3. Newton 1643-1727

Newton gave us Newton’s laws of motion and of universal gravitation. He, along with Leibniz, developed  calculus. Many topics in physical science and math are related to Newton and all of his discoveries.

4. Bernhard Riemann 1826-1866

Riemann’s paper, published in 1859,  titled ” On the Number of Prime Numbers Less Than a Given Quantity” has sparked much interest and research into the question of how the prime numbers are structured. This is the greatest unsolved mathematics problem and students are real interested to know what the problem is about. This is a very interesting topic for a club like MathCounts were number theory and prime numbers come up all the time. I recommend the book Prime Obsession by John Derbyshire for a interesting read with some good history and mathematics.

5. Paul Erdos 1913-1996

Erdos was an interesting mathematician. He was very social and always tried to work with others. He was the opposite of Gauss who liked to work alone. He called young students “epsilons”, which means a little. He would give challenges to students to prove small theorems and pay them if they could prove it. He liked to travel around the world to work with other mathematicians and would say ” another roof, another proof”. His whole life was mathematics. He did not know how to drive or even how to do his laundry. He hated to waste time on anything but mathematics. Others who have published with him are given an Erdos number. The lower the number, the more directly related to working with him you are. I wish I had met him.