A Mathematical History Tour: Reflections on a Study Abroad Program - Travelogue, Paris: Houses, Churches, Museums and Graves

R. Abraham Edwards (Michigan State University) and Marie Savoie (Michigan State University, B.S. 2020)

The intellectual persecution of Galileo, Cavalieri, and others at the hands of the church was partly responsible for a shift in the center of mathematics from the Piazzas of Italy to the cafés of Paris and the coffee houses of London. Likewise, our group followed the footsteps of Giuseppe Lodovico Lagrangia (Joseph-Louis Lagrange) to Paris. Our time in Paris centered on three eras: the life and times of Rene Descartes, the Enlightenment, and the Romantic Age. While a few papers exist describing some of the mathematical highlights of Paris (e.g. Smith, 1923), our community would be well-served by a thorough and definitive written description of such places.

Some of the mathematical highlights of Paris coincide with tourist highlights: The Eiffel Tower features the names of 72 French scientists and mathematicians whose work led to the construction of the tower. Among the names not listed is Sophie Germain. The hour-long wait to climb the tower afforded us a great opportunity to begin a discussion on the role of women in mathematics throughout history.

Figure 7: Three of the seventy-two names on the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Victor Ruiz, labeled for reuse under the Creative Commons License.

The oldest church in Paris, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, holds the tomb of Rene Descartes in a side chapel. The Pantheon holds the tombs of Lagrange, Monge, Condorcet, and Carnot alongside other figures such as Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and the Curies. In Napoleon’s tomb visitors find a majestic relief of the great emperor surrounded by the names of the mathematicians and scientists of his day, including Laplace, Monge, and Fourier. We sat on the steps of Napoleon’s massive tomb, with all the other tourists, and talked about the challenges and responsibilities of being a mathematician in times of social upheaval.

Student giving a presentation outside Napoleon's tomb.

Figure 8: A student introducing us to Napoleon’s mathematicians. Photo by the author.

Even the palace at Versailles holds some mathematical secrets. During the reign of Louis XIV, gambling was a popular pastime at the palace. Louis encouraged gambling among the nobility in part because it kept them occupied and entertained while he ruled France. On a lovely June afternoon, we sat in the gardens of Versailles and worked out solutions to the “Problem of Points” on our mini-whiteboard. While the crowds gazed at the fountains, gardens, and glorious chateaux, we sprawled in the sunshine reading excerpts from letters between Pascal and Fermat. The gardens of Versailles are themselves a tour-de-force of geometric design, and the symbolism is clear: Louis XIV was not just another king, but a king whose rule over France was as much a part of the proper order of the Universe as the geometric principles on which his gardens were established.

Figure 9: A portion of the gardens at Versailles. Wikipedia.

Of course, some mathematical highlights of Paris are off the tourist radar: We visited Sophie Germain’s home, at 13 Rue de Savoie, and the house where Condorcet hid during the Reign of Terror at 15 Rue Servandoli. More than one student (and possibly even a professor) swallowed a lump in their throats as we stood outside the front door of the Parisian house where Germain died of breast cancer in 1831 and thought about the challenges she overcame throughout her life.