Leonhard Euler

Born: 15 April 1707 in Basel, Switzerland

Died: 18 Sept 1783 in St Petersburg, Russia

Leonhard Euler's father was Paul Euler. Paul Euler had studied theology at the University of Basel and had attended Jacob Bernoulli's lectures there. In fact Paul Euler and Johann Bernoulli had both lived in Jacob Bernoulli's house while undergraduates at Basel. Paul Euler became a Protestant minister and married Margaret Brucker, the daughter of another Protestant minister. Their son Leonhard Euler was born in Basel, but the family moved to Riehen when he was one year old and it was in Riehen, not far from Basel, that Leonard was brought up. Paul Euler had, as we have mentioned, some mathematical training and he was able to teach his son elementary mathematics along with other subjects.

Leonhard was sent to school in Basel and during this time he lived with his grandmother on his mother's side. This school was a rather poor one, by all accounts, and Euler learnt no mathematics at all from the school. However his interest in mathematics had certainly been sparked by his father's teaching, and he read mathematics texts on his own and took some private lessons. Euler's father wanted his son to follow him into the church and sent him to the University of Basel to prepare for the ministry. He entered the University in 1720, at the age of 14, first to obtain a general education before going on to more advanced studies. Johann Bernoulli soon discovered Euler's great potential for mathematics in private tuition that Euler himself engineered. Euler's own account given in his unpublished autobiographical writings, see, is as follows:-

... I soon found an opportunity to be introduced to a famous professor Johann Bernoulli. ... True, he was very busy and so refused flatly to give me private lessons; but he gave me much more valuable advice to start reading more difficult mathematical books on my own and to study them as diligently as I could; if I came across some obstacle or difficulty, I was given permission to visit him freely every Sunday afternoon and he kindly explained to me everything I could not understand ...

In 1723 Euler completed his Master's degree in philosophy having compared and contrasted the philosophical ideas of Descartes and Newton. He began his study of theology in the autumn of 1723, following his father's wishes, but, although he was to be a devout Christian all his life, he could not find the enthusiasm for the study of theology, Greek and Hebrew that he found in mathematics. Euler obtained his father's consent to change to mathematics after Johann Bernoulli had used his persuasion. The fact that Euler's father had been a friend of Johann Bernoulli's in their undergraduate days undoubtedly made the task of persuasion much easier.

Euler completed his studies at the University of Basel in 1726. He had studied many mathematical works during his time in Basel, and Calinger has reconstructed many of the works that Euler read with the advice of Johann Bernoulli. They include works by Varignon, Descartes, Newton, Galileo, von Schooten, Jacob Bernoulli, Hermann, Taylor and Wallis. By 1726 Euler had already a paper in print, a short article on isochronous curves in a resisting medium. In 1727 he published another article on reciprocal trajectories and submitted an entry for the 1727 Grand Prize of the Paris Academy on the best arrangement of masts on a ship.

The Prize of 1727 went to Bouguer, an expert on mathematics relating to ships, but Euler's essay won him second place which was a fine achievement for the young graduate. However, Euler now had to find himself an academic appointment and when Nicolaus(II) Bernoulli died in St Petersburg in July 1726 creating a vacancy there, Euler was offered the post which would involve him in teaching applications of mathematics and mechanics to physiology. He accepted the post in November 1726 but stated that he did not want to travel to Russia until the spring of the following year. He had two reasons to delay. He wanted time to study the topics relating to his new post but also he had a chance of a post at the University of Basel since the professor of physics there had died. Euler wrote an article on acoustics, which went on to become a classic, in his bid for selection to the post but he was nor chosen to go forward to the stage where lots were drawn to make the final decision on who would fill the chair. Almost certainly his youth (he was 19 at the time) was against him. However Calinger suggests:-

This decision ultimately benefited Euler, because it forced him to move from a small republic into a setting more adequate for his brilliant research and technological work.

As soon as he knew he would not be appointed to the chair of physics, Euler left Basel on 5 April 1727. He travelled down the Rhine by boat, crossed the German states by post wagon, then by boat from Lübeck arriving in St Petersburg on 17 May 1727. He had joined the St. Petersburg Academy of Science two years after it had been founded by Catherine I the wife of Peter the Great. Through the requests of Daniel Bernoulli and Jakob Hermann, Euler was appointed to the mathematical-physical division of the Academy rather than to the physiology post he had originally been offered. At St Petersburg Euler had many colleagues who would provide an exceptional environment for him:-

Nowhere else could he have been surrounded by such a group of eminent scientists, including the analyst, geometer Jakob Hermann, a relative; Daniel Bernoulli, with whom Euler was connected not only by personal friendship but also by common interests in the field of applied mathematics; the versatile scholar Christian Goldbach, with whom Euler discussed numerous problems of analysis and the theory of numbers; F Maier, working in trigonometry; and the astronomer and geographer J-N Delisle.

Euler served as a medical lieutenant in the Russian navy from 1727 to 1730. In St Petersburg he lived with Daniel Bernoulli who, already unhappy in Russia, had requested that Euler bring him tea, coffee, brandy and other delicacies from Switzerland. Euler became professor of physics at the academy in 1730 and, since this allowed him to became a full member of the Academy, he was able to give up his Russian navy post.

Daniel Bernoulli held the senior chair in mathematics at the Academy but when he left St Petersburg to return to Basel in 1733 it was Euler who was appointed to this senior chair of mathematics. The financial improvement which came from this appointment allowed Euler to marry which he did on 7 January 1734, marrying Katharina Gsell, the daughter of a painter from the St Petersburg Gymnasium. Katharina, like Euler, was from a Swiss family. They had 13 children altogether although only five survived their infancy. Euler claimed that he made some of his greatest mathematical discoveries while holding a baby in his arms with other children playing round his feet.

We will examine Euler's mathematical achievements later in this article but at this stage it is worth summarising Euler's work in this period of his career. This is done in [24] as follows:-

... after 1730 he carried out state projects dealing with cartography, science education, magnetism, fire engines, machines, and ship building. ... The core of his research program was now set in place: number theory; infinitary analysis including its emerging branches, differential equations and the calculus of variations; and rational mechanics. He viewed these three fields as intimately interconnected. Studies of number theory were vital to the foundations of calculus, and special functions and differential equations were essential to rational mechanics, which supplied concrete problems.

The publication of many articles and his book Mechanica (1736-37), which extensively presented Newtonian dynamics in the form of mathematical analysis for the first time, started Euler on the way to major mathematical work.

Euler's health problems began in 1735 when he had a severe fever and almost lost his life. However, he kept this news from his parents and members of the Bernoulli family back in Basel until he had recovered. In his autobiographical writings Euler says that his eyesight problems began in 1738 with overstrain due to his cartographic work and that by 1740 he had :-

... lost an eye and [the other] currently may be in the same danger.

However, Calinger in [24] argues that Euler's eyesight problems almost certainly started earlier and that the severe fever of 1735 was a symptom of the eyestrain. He also argues that a portrait of Euler from 1753 suggests that by that stage the sight of his left eye was still good while that of his right eye was poor but not completely blind. Calinger suggests that Euler's left eye became blind from a later cataract rather than eyestrain.

By 1740 Euler had a very high reputation, having won the Grand Prize of the Paris Academy in 1738 and 1740. On both occasions he shared the first prize with others. Euler's reputation was to bring an offer to go to Berlin, but at first he preferred to remain in St Petersburg. However political turmoil in Russia made the position of foreigners particularly difficult and contributed to Euler changing his mind. Accepting an improved offer Euler, at the invitation of Frederick the Great, went to Berlin where an Academy of Science was planned to replace the Society of Sciences. He left St Petersburg on 19 June 1741, arriving in Berlin on 25 July. In a letter to a friend Euler wrote:-

I can do just what I wish [in my research] ... The king calls me his professor, and I think I am the happiest man in the world.

Even while in Berlin Euler continued to receive part of his salary from Russia. For this remuneration he bought books and instruments for the St Petersburg Academy, he continued to write scientific reports for them, and he educated young Russians.

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