Abraham De Moivre

During my week in Roma, I read David Bellhouse’s book on Abraham De Moivre (at night and in the local transportations and even in Via del Corso waiting for my daughter!)… This is a very scholarly piece of work, with many references to original documents, and it may not completely appeal to the general audience: The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson is covering the same period and the rise of the “scientific man” (or Natural Philosopher) in a much more novelised manner, while centering on Newton as its main character and on the earlier Newton-Leibniz dispute, rather than the later Newton-(De Moivre)-Bernoulli dispute. (De Moivre does not appear in the books, at least under his name.)

Bellhouse’s book should however fascinate most academics in that, beside going with the uttermost detail into De Moivre’s contributions to probability, it uncovers the way (mathematical) research was done in the 17th and 18th century England: De Moivre never got an academic position (although he applied for several ones, incl. in Cambridge), in part because he was an emigrated French huguenot (after the revocation of the Édit de Nantes by Louis XIV), and he got a living by tutoring gentry and aristocracy sons in mathematics and accounting. He also was a consultant on annuities. His interactions with other mathematicians of the time was done through coffee-houses, the newly founded Royal Society, and letters. De Moivre published most of his work in the Philosophical Transactions and in self-edited books that he financed by subscriptions. (As a Frenchman, I personally[and so did Jacob Bernoulli!] found puzzling the fact that De Moivre never wrote anything in french but assimilated very quickly into English society.)

Another fascinating aspect of the book is the way English (incl. De Moivre) and Continental mathematicians fought and bickered on the priority of discoveries. Because their papers were rarely and slowly published, and even more slowly distributed throughout Western Europe, they had to rely on private letters for those priority claims. De Moivre’s main achievement is his book, The Doctrine of Chances, which contains among clever binomial derivations on various chance games an occurrence of the central limit theorem for binomial experiments. And the use of generating functions. De Moivre had a suprisingly long life since he died at 87 in London, still giving private lessons as old as 72. Besides being seen as a leading English mathematician, he eventually got recognised by the French Académie Royale des Sciences, if as a foreign member, a few months prior to his death (as well as by the Berlin Academy of Sciences). There is also a small section in the book on the connections between De Moivre and Thomas Bayes (pp. 200-203), although very little is known of their personal interactions. Bayes was close to one of De Moivre’s former students, Phillip Stanhope, and he worked on several of De Moivre’s papers to get entry to the Royal Society. Some open question is whether or not Bayes was ever tutored by De Moivre, although there is no material proof he did. The book also mentions Bayes’ theorem in connection with an comment on The Doctrine of Chances by Hartley (p.191), as if De Moivre had an hand in it or at least a knowledge of it, but this seems unlikely…

In conclusion, this is a highly pleasant and easily readable book on the career of a major mathematician and of one of the founding fathers of probability theory. David Bellhouse is to be congratulated on the scholarship exhibited by this book and on the painstaking pursuit of all historical documents related with De Moivre’s life.

3 Responses to “Abraham De Moivre”

  1. [...] I smash my 1690 Stradivarius and buy a Fender Stratocaster?! Further, given the intensity and the often under-the-belt level of the Newton vs. Leibniz dispute, maybe refereeing and publishing in the Philosophical [...]

  2. [...] of interest, focusing on finite difference equations. (There is an interesting connection with de Moivre, incidentally, since he used generating functions to derive binomial formulas. He is acknowledged [...]

  3. I find amazing that, within a few days, my review is already quoted on amazon!

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