Roger Cotes’s Birthday

Amongst the Twitter feeds I follow and which aren’t based on fictional squirrels is the @mathshistory one, reporting just what it sounds like. It noted the 10th of July was the birthday of Roger Cotes (1682 – 1716) and I knew there was something naggingly familiar about his name. His biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive features what surely kept him in my mind: that on Cotes’s death at age 34 Isaac Newton said, “… if he had lived we might have known something”. Given Newton’s standing, that’s a eulogy almost good enough to get Cotes tenure, even today.

MacTutor credits Cotes with, among other things, inventing the radian measure of angles; I’m wise enough, I hope, to view skeptically all claims of anyone uniquely inventing anything mathematical, although it’s certainly so that radian measure — in which you give an angle of arc, not by how many degrees it reaches, but by how long the arc is, in units of the radius — is extraordinarily convenient analytically and it’s hard to see how mathematicians did without it. People who advanced the idea and its use deserve their praise. (Normal people can carry on with degrees of arc, for which the numbers are just more pleasant.) As a bonus it serves as one of the points on which people coming into trigonometry classes can feel their heads exploding.

Cotes’s name also gets a decent and, if I have it right, appropriate amount of fame for what are called Newton-Cotes formulas. These are methods for “numerical quadrature”, the slightly old-fashioned name we use to talk about numerical approximations of integrals. In an introductory calculus class one’s likely to run across a couple of rules for numerical quadrature — given names like the Trapezoid Rule, Simpson’s Rule, Simpson’s 3/8ths rule, or the Midpoint Rule — and these are all examples of the Newton-Cotes formulas. Teaching the routine for getting all these Newton-Cotes formulas was, for whatever reason, one of the things I found particularly delightful when I taught numerical mathematics; some subjects are just fun to explain.

MacTutor also notes that from 1709 through 1713, Cotes edited the second edition of Newton’s Principia, and apparently did a most thorough job of it. It claims he studied the Principia and arguing its points with Newton in enough detail that Newton finally removed the thanks he gave to Cotes in the first draft of his preface. A difficult but correct editor is probably more pleasant to have when the project is finished.