My All 2020 Mathematics A to Z: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz


Today’s topic suggestion was suggested by bunnydoe. I know of a project bunnydoe runs, but not whether it should be publicized. It is another biographical piece. Biographies and complex numbers, that seems to be the theme of this year.

Color cartoon illustration of a coati in a beret and neckerchief, holding up a director's megaphone and looking over the Hollywood hills. The megaphone has the symbols + x (division obelus) and = on it. The Hollywood sign is, instead, the letters MATHEMATICS. In the background are spotlights, with several of them crossing so as to make the letters A and Z; one leg of the spotlights has 'TO' in it, so the art reads out, subtly, 'Mathematics A to Z'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

The exact suggestion I got for L was “Leibniz, the inventor of Calculus”. I can’t in good conscience offer that. This isn’t to deny Leibniz’s critical role in calculus. We rely on many of the ideas he’d had for it. We especially use his notation. But there are few great big ideas that can be truly credited to an inventor, or even a team of inventors. Put aside the sorry and embarrassing priority dispute with Isaac Newton. Many mathematicians in the 16th and 17th century were working on how to improve the Archimedean “method of exhaustion”. This would find the areas inside select curves, integral calculus. Johannes Kepler worked out the areas of ellipse slices, albeit with considerable luck. Gilles Roberval tried working out the area inside a curve as the area of infinitely many narrow rectangular strips. We still learn integration from this. Pierre de Fermat recognized how tangents to a curve could find maximums and minimums of functions. This is a critical piece of differential calculus. Isaac Barrow, Evangelista Torricelli (of barometer fame), Pietro Mengoli, and Stephano Angeli all pushed mathematics towards calculus. James Gregory proved, in geometric form, the relationship between differentiation and integration. That relationship is the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus.

This is not to denigrate Leibniz. We don’t dismiss the Wright Brothers though we know that without them, Alberto Santos-Dumont or Glenn Curtiss or Samuel Langley would have built a workable airplane anyway. We have Leibniz’s note, dated the 29th of October, 1675 (says Florian Cajori), writing out \int l to mean the sum of all l’s. By mid-November he was integrating functions, and writing out his work as \int f(x) dx . Any mathematics or physics or chemistry or engineering major today would recognize that. A year later he was writing things like d(x^n) = n x^{n - 1} dx , which we’d also understand if not quite care to put that way.

Though we use his notation and his basic tools we don’t exactly use Leibniz’s particular ideas of what calculus means. It’s been over three centuries since he published. It would be remarkable if he had gotten the concepts exactly and in the best of all possible forms. Much of Leibniz’s calculus builds on the idea of a differential. This is a quantity that’s smaller than any positive number but also larger than zero. How does that make sense? George Berkeley argued it made not a lick of sense. Mathematicians frowned, but conceded Berkeley was right. By the mid-19th century they had a rationale for differentials that avoided this weird sort of number.

It’s hard to avoid the differential’s lure. The intuitive appeal of “imagine moving this thing a tiny bit” is always there. In science or engineering applications it’s almost mandatory. Few things we encounter in the real world have the kinds of discontinuity that create logic problems for differentials. Even in pure mathematics, we will look at a differential equation like \frac{dy}{dx} = x and rewrite it as dy = x dx . Leibniz’s notation gives us the idea that taking derivatives is some kind of fraction. It isn’t, but in many problems we act as though it were. It works out often enough we forget that it might not.

Better, though. From the 1960s Abraham Robinson and others worked out a different idea of what real numbers are. In that, differentials have a rigorous logical definition. We call the mathematics which uses this “non-standard analysis”. The name tells something of its use. This is not to call it wrong. It’s merely not what we learn first, or necessarily at all. And it is Leibniz’s differentials. 304 years after his death there is still a lot of mathematics he could plausibly recognize.

There is still a lot of still-vital mathematics that he touched directly. Leibniz appears to be the first person to use the term “function”, for example, to describe that thing we’re plotting with a curve. He worked on systems of linear equations, and methods to find solutions if they exist. This technique is now called Gaussian elimination. We see the bundling of the equations’ coefficients he did as building a matrix and finding its determinant. We know that technique, today, as Cramer’s Rule, after Gabriel Cramer. The Japanese mathematician Seki Takakazu had discovered determinants before Leibniz, though.

Leibniz tried to study a thing he called “analysis situs”, which two centuries on would be a name for topology. My reading tells me you can get a good fight going among mathematics historians by asking whether he was a pioneer in topology. So I’ll decline to take a side in that.

In the 1680s he tried to create an algebra of thought, to turn reasoning into something like arithmetic. His goal was good: we see these ideas today as Boolean algebra, and concepts like conjunction and disjunction and negation and the empty set. Anyone studying logic knows these today. He’d also worked in something we can see as symbolic logic. Unfortunately for his reputation, the papers he wrote about that went unpublished until late in the 19th century. By then other mathematicians, like Gottlob Frege and Charles Sanders Peirce, had independently published the same ideas.

We give Leibniz’ name to a particular series that tells us the value of π:

1 - \frac13 + \frac15 - \frac17 + \frac19 - \frac{1}{11} + \cdots = \frac{\pi}{4}

(The Indian mathematician Madhava of Sangamagrama knew the formula this comes from by the 14th century. I don’t know whether Western Europe had gotten the news by the 17th century. I suspect it hadn’t.)

The drawback to using this to figure out digits of π is that it takes forever to use. Taking ten decimal digits of π demands evaluating about five billion terms. That’s not hyperbole; it just takes like forever to get its work done.

Which is something of a theme in Leibniz’s biography. He had a great many projects. Some of them even reached a conclusion. Many did not, and instead sprawled out with great ambition and sometimes insight before getting lost. Consider a practical one: he believed that the use of wind-driven propellers and water pumps could drain flooded mines. (Mines are always flooding.) In principle, he was right. But they all failed. Leibniz blamed deliberate obstruction by administrators and technicians. He even blamed workers afraid that new technologies would replace their jobs. Yet even in this failure he observed and had bracing new thoughts. The geology he learned in the mines project made him hypothesize that the Earth had been molten. I do not know the history of geology well enough to say whether this was significant to that field. It may have been another frustrating moment of insight (lucky or otherwise) ahead of its time but not connected to the mainstream of thought.

Another project, tantalizing yet incomplete: the “stepped reckoner”, a mechanical arithmetic machine. The design was to do addition and subtraction, multiplication and division. It’s a breathtaking idea. It earned him election into the (British) Royal Society in 1673. But it never was quite complete, never getting carries to work fully automatically. He never did finish it, and lost friends with the Royal Society when he moved on to other projects. He had a note describing a machine that could do some algebraic operations. In the 1690s he had some designs for a machine that might, in theory, integrate differential equations. It’s a fantastic idea. At some point he also devised a cipher machine. I do not know if this is one that was ever used in its time.

His greatest and longest-lasting unfinished project was for his employer, the House of Brunswick. Three successive Brunswick rulers were content to let Leibniz work on his many side projects. The one that Ernest Augustus wanted was a history of the Guelf family, in the House of Brunswick. One that went back to the time of Charlemagne or earlier if possible. The goal was to burnish the reputation of the house, which had just become a hereditary Elector of the Holy Roman Empire. (That is, they had just gotten to a new level of fun political intriguing. But they were at the bottom of that level.) Starting from 1687 Leibniz did good diligent work. He travelled throughout central Europe to find archival materials. He studied their context and meaning and relevance. He organized it. What he did not do, by his death in 1716, was write the thing.

It is always difficult to understand another person. Moreso someone you know only through biography. And especially someone who lived in very different times. But I do see a particular an modern personality type here. We all know someone who will work so very hard getting prepared to do a project Right that it never gets done. You might be reading the words of one right now.

Leibniz was a compulsive Society-organizer. He promoted ones in Brandenberg and Berlin and Dresden and Vienna and Saint Petersburg. None succeeded. It’s not obvious why. Leibniz was well-connected enough; he’s known to have over six hundred correspondents. Even for a time of great letter-writing, that’s a lot.

But it does seem like something about him offended others. Failing to complete big projects, like the stepped reckoner or the History of the Guelf family, seems like some of that. Anyone who knows of calculus knows of the dispute about the Newton-versus-Leibniz priority dispute. Grant that Leibniz seems not to have much fueled the quarrel. (And that modern historians agree Leibniz did not steal calculus from Newton.) Just being at the center of Drama causes people to rate you poorly.

There seems like there’s more, though. He was liked, for example, by the Electress Sophia of Hanover and her daughter Sophia Charlotte. These were the mother and the sister of Britain’s King George I. When George I ascended to the British throne he forbade Leibniz coming to London until at least one volume of the history was written. (The restriction seems fair, considering Leibniz was 27 years into the project by then.)

There are pieces in his biography that suggest a person a bit too clever for his own good. His first salaried position, for example, was as secretary to a Nuremberg alchemical society. He did not know alchemy. He passed himself off as deeply learned, though. I don’t blame him. Nobody would ever pass a job interview if they didn’t pretend to have expertise. Here it seems to have worked.

But consider, for example, his peace mission to Paris. Leibniz was born in the last years of the Thirty Years War. In that, the Great Powers of Europe battled each other in the German states. They destroyed Germany with a thoroughness not matched until World War II. Leibniz reasonably feared France’s King Louis XIV had designs on what was left of Germany. So his plan was to sell the French government on a plan of attacking Egypt and, from there, the Dutch East Indies. This falls short of an early-Enlightenment idea of rational world peace and a congress of nations. But anyone who plays grand strategy games recognizes the “let’s you and him fight” scheming. (The plan became irrelevant when France went to war with the Netherlands. The war did rope Brandenberg-Prussia, Cologne, Münster, and the Holy Roman Empire into the mess.)

God: 'T-Rex remember the other day when you said you wanted to enhance the timeline?' T-Rex: 'Absolutely!' God: 'Well why enhance it only once?' T-Rex: 'Holy cow! Why indeed? I enhance the past so there's holodecks in the present. And then I teach cavepeeps to invent those, and then return to the future and find new entertainment technology so amazing I can't even imagine it right now! I could enhance the timeline over and over until me and all the other time travellers conclude it can't possibly be enhanced any more!!' Utahraptor: 'Which leaves us with two possibilities.' T-Rex: 'Oh?' Utahraptor: 'One: time travel isn't possible and we're stuck with this timeline.' T-Rex: 'Boo! Let's ignore that one!' Utahraptor: 'Two: time travel is possible, and this timeline is absolutely the best one anyone could come up with' T-Rex: 'Boo! That one --- that one gave me the sad feelings.'
Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 20th of August, 2020. (Spoiler: time travel isn’t possible.) And while I am still just reading the comics for fun, I have a number of essays discussing aspects of Dinosaur Comics at this link.

And I have not discussed Leibniz’s work in philosophy, outside his logic. He’s respected for the theory of monads, part of the long history of trying to explain how things can have qualities. Like many he tried to find a deductive-logic argument about whether God must exist. And he proposed the notion that the world that exists is the most nearly perfect that can possibly be. Everyone has been dragging him for that ever since he said it, and they don’t look ready to stop. It’s an unfair rap, even if it makes for funny spoofs of his writing.

The optimal world may need to be badly defective in some ways. And this recognition inspires a question in me. Obviously Leibniz could come to this realization from thinking carefully about the world. But anyone working on optimization problems knows the more constraints you must satisfy, the less optimal your best-fit can be. Some things you might like may end up being lousy, because the overall maximum is more important. I have not seen anything to suggest Leibniz studied the mathematics of optimization theory. Is it possible he was working in things we now recognize as such, though? That he has notes in the things we would call Lagrange multipliers or such? I don’t know, and would like to know if anyone does.

Leibniz’s funeral was unattended by any dignitary or courtier besides his personal secretary. The Royal Academy and the Berlin Academy of Sciences did not honor their member’s death. His grave was unmarked for a half-century. And yet historians of mathematics, philosophy, physics, engineering, psychology, social science, philology, and more keep finding his work, and finding it more advanced than one would expect. Leibniz’s legacy seems to be one always rising and emerging from shade, but never being quite where it should.


And that’s enough for one day. All of the 2020 A-to-Z essays should be at this link. Both 2020 and all past A-to-Z essays should be at this link. And, as I am hosting the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival at the end of September, I am looking for any blogs, videos, books, anything educational or recreational or just interesting to read about. Thank you for your reading and your help.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

7 thoughts on “My All 2020 Mathematics A to Z: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz”

  1. This was great. It actually makes me feel a bit bad for Leibniz and gives me a greater appreciation for his accomplishments. As a philosopher I like to “claim” him and thus wanted to make you decide the calculus-discovery fight in his favor, but I still do tend to think of his philosophical views as a caricature of the most bonkers sort of modern metaphysics. Your biography has elevated my opinion of him.

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    1. Thank you. I’m glad to be able to bring a little more breadth to anyone’s understanding of Leibniz. I resisted making direct comparisons to Newton, since that’s so very overdone. But it did cross my mind how Newton was in many ways the last of the great mystic polymaths left over from medieval days, while Leibniz is more one of the first great rationalist polymaths in a modern style. That might be another essay sometime and I would want to get better versed in the details of both their careers to make sure this idea is actually defensible.

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