Tales of Badass Mathematicians: Cardano
August 22, 2011 8 Comments
When people think of excitement, intrigue, and violence, they rarely think of mathematicians. That’s because they haven’t heard enough about Girolamo Cardano: 16th century Italian mathematician, physician, inventor, and general badass. This situation must be remedied.
Cardano was one of the first mathematicians to publish an autobiography, and it’s well-deserved. Not only did he have academic accomplishments, he lead a fascinating life. I was reading about how he published the first mathematical examination of probability theory when this passage in Keith Devlin’s The Unfinished Game caught my eye:
“Throughout his life, Cardano was a compulsive gambler who needed every bit of help he could find at the gambling tables, from mathematics or any other source. (And he did find other sources of help. Once, when he suspected he was being cheated at cards, he took out the knife he always carried with him and slashed his opponent’s face.)”
Let’s just say that Cardano wouldn’t have stood idly by as Roman soldiers disturbed his circles. He wasn’t particularly strong, but according to his autobiography he trained persistently and became quite the swordsman. He also boasts, “Another feat I acquired was how to snatch an unsheathed dagger, myself unarmed, from the one who held it.” Not a mathematician to mess with.
Cardano was also a talented physician. Despite his abilities, the College of Physicians in Milan rejected him – ostensibly due to his illegimate birth, but probably because he had an annoying personality (something Cardano admits to). That didn’t stop Cardano – though it wasn’t allowed, he treated patients on the side and developed a reputation as one of the best. Even as his fame grew, he couldn’t help but make enemies.
“With a client list that soon included wealthy people of influence in Milan – including some members of the college – it was surely only a matter of time before the college would be forced to admit him. But then, in 1536, still fuming at his continuing exclusion, he killed his chances by publishing a book attacking not only the college members’ medical ability but their character as well.”
Oh, as we used to say in middle school, snap. (Actually, even calling them “artificial” and “insipid” didn’t prevent Cardano from getting into the College – Devlin goes on to say that they admitted him a couple years later under pressure from supporters.)
The drama goes on and on. He got into a feud with Tartaglia, another mathematician, over whether he had promised to keep Tartaglia’s method for solving cubic equations secret. His eldest son was convicted of poisoning his cheating wife, and Cardano wasn’t able to save him from torture and execution. Then his younger son got into gambling debt and stole from Cardano, who sadly turned him over to the authorities to be banished.
Later, in what Devlin suspects was a deliberate attempt to gain notoriety, Cardano provoked the Catholic Church by publishing a horoscope for Jesus Christ and writing a book praising anti-Christian Nero. He was convicted of heresy (To add to the intrigue, Wikipedia says that “Apparently, his own son contributed to the prosecution, bribed by Tartaglia.”) After serving a few months in prison and making up with the Pope, he spent the last few years of his life writing an autobiography.
Even his death had style. Cardano died on September 21th, 1576 – the exact date he had predicted years ago. It’s believed that he committed suicide just to make sure he got the date right. What a way to go.