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Leonhard Euler and the Bernoullis

M. B. W. Tent
A K Peters
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Allen Stenger
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This is an interesting and entertaining biography of Leonhard Euler (1707–1783) and of some of the Bernoullis, aimed at middle and high school students. The scientific content is skimpy; the book emphasizes day to day life and the relations between the mathematicians, especially the forever-squabbling Bernoullis. On the Bernoulli side nearly all the attention goes to Euler’s contemporary and colleague Daniel (1700–1782) and to Johann (1667–1748), Daniel’s father and Euler’s teacher. Johann’s elder brother Jacob (1654–1705), a teacher of Euler’s father Paul and a fierce rival of Johann, gets a moderate amount of coverage.

The book is somewhat fictionalized. How fictionalized? The book focuses on conversations and day to day life of the characters in Basel and in St. Petersburg, and because this material is generally undocumented, the author has invented most of the details. There is no bibliography and no footnotes, but as a guess I would say only about 25% of the book is traceable to actual historical documents. I’m not enthusiastic about this approach; it’s probably harmless for a book intended to interest children in science, but it’s not scholarly.

Although most of the book is not literally known fact, it is plausible and consistent with what we do know. Some letters are quoted in paraphrased form, and there is a large amount of dialog, nearly all of which must have been invented by the author. The style of the dialog varies wildly, with some of it using up-to-date slang and some reading like the most stilted Victorian children’s literature.

There are a number of illustrations, both historical etchings and present-day photographs of places mentioned in the book, and a detailed index. Unfortunately there’s no “further reading” section, so if a child’s interest is ignited by this book he won’t know where to go. (Actually children do know where to go — Google — but that’s not always the best choice.) I think E. T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics, although old and criticized for its own looseness with historical fact, is still valuable and would be a good next book. Ioan James’s Remarkable Mathematicians is a modern version of Bell’s book, and is more accurate but less exciting. William Dunham’s Euler: The Master of Us All is aimed at an audience that’s a few years older than Tent’s is, but it does have a nice biographical sketch and a much more thorough description of Euler’s mathematical work.

Allen Stenger is a math hobbyist, library propagandist, and retired computer programmer. He volunteers in his spare time at, a math help site that fosters inquiry learning. His mathematical interests are number theory and classical analysis.



Figure Credits

1 The Bernoullis as Huguenots

2 The Bernoulli Family in Frankfurt and Then Basel

3 Jacob Makes His First Steps in the Study of Mathematics

4 His Little Brother Johann “Helps” Jacob with Mathematics

5 Having Completed His Studies in Philosophy and Theology, Jacob Moves On

6 Jacob Travels to Geneva and Meets Elizabeth Waldkirch and Her Family

7 Jacob Teaches Elizabeth Waldkirch to Read and Write Numbers and Words

8 Sundials, and Tutoring in France

9 Jacob Meets with Mathematicians in Paris

10 Jacob Travels to Holland and England

11 Jacob Settles into Life in Basel to Lecture and Learn

12 Leibniz’s Calculus vs. Newton’s Fluxions

13 Johann Bernoulli Grows Up

14 Two Curves Studied by the Bernoullis: The Isochrone and the Catenary

15 More Mathematical Challenges from the Bernoullis

16 Jacob Bernoulli’s Mathematics

17 Johann Bernoulli Returns to Basel with His Family

18 Johann Bernoulli’s Son Daniel Grows Up

19 Daniel Bernoulli, the Paris Prize, and the Longitude Problem

20 Leonhard Euler

21 Leonhard Euler’s Early Education

22 Leonhard Euler Goes to the Latin School in Basel and Then on to the University

23 Daniel and Nicolaus Bernoulli Receive a Call to the Academy at St. Petersburg

24 The Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg

25 Euler Begins His Career and Moves to St. Petersburg

26 Daniel Bernoulli and Leonhard Euler: An Active Scientific Partnership

27 The St. Petersburg Paradox

28 Euler’s Early Work in St. Petersburg

29 Daniel Returns to Basel, and Leonhard Euler Becomes Professor of Mathematics at St. Petersburg

30 Daniel Bernoulli: A Famous Scholar

31 Leonhard Euler: Admired Professor at St. Petersburg

32 Euler Becomes Blind in His Right Eye

33 St. Petersburg Loses Euler to Frederick the Great of Prussia

34 The Eulers Arrive at the Court of Frederick the Great in Berlin

35 Euler’s Scientific Work in Berlin

36 Euler’s Work in Number Theory

37 Magic Squares

38 Catherine the Great Invites Euler to Return to St. Petersburg

39 The Basel Clan