Death in Paris: When Mathematics became Art
In the early decades of the 19th century, the science of mathematics underwent
a transformation that has shaped its course to this day. From a field
that studies the physical world around us, it became the study of sublime
truths that lie beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Mathematicians became
those endowed with a special site into the alternate universe of mathematical
perfection, who then return and report what they saw to the rest of us.
This novel understanding of the field was epitomized in 1830s Paris by
the tragic legends of two young mathematical geniuses Evariste Galois
and Niels Henrik Abel. Both, according to legend, had tried to spread
word of their discoveries in Paris, only to die poor and unacknowledged
by their jaded contemporaries. Their mathematical heritage, however, will
live on to eternity.
The transformation of mathematics moved the field away from the natural
sciences and into line with the fine arts. In that age of high romanticism,
art, poetry, and music were also perceived as connecting humans to sublime
experiences accessible only to a privileged few. It is no coincidence
that the mythical biographies of mathematicians such as Galois and Abel
closely parallel the legendary lives of poets, artists, and musicians
of that romantic age.