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Gamma: Exploring Euler's Constant

Gamma: Exploring Euler's Constant

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Gamma: Exploring Euler's Constant

5/5 (6 valutazioni)
471 pagine
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Jan 4, 2010


Among the many constants that appear in mathematics, π, e, and i are the most familiar. Following closely behind is y, or gamma, a constant that arises in many mathematical areas yet maintains a profound sense of mystery.

In a tantalizing blend of history and mathematics, Julian Havil takes the reader on a journey through logarithms and the harmonic series, the two defining elements of gamma, toward the first account of gamma's place in mathematics.

Introduced by the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707-1783), who figures prominently in this book, gamma is defined as the limit of the sum of 1 + 1/2 + 1/3 + . . . Up to 1/n, minus the natural logarithm of n--the numerical value being 0.5772156. . . . But unlike its more celebrated colleagues π and e, the exact nature of gamma remains a mystery--we don't even know if gamma can be expressed as a fraction.

Among the numerous topics that arise during this historical odyssey into fundamental mathematical ideas are the Prime Number Theorem and the most important open problem in mathematics today--the Riemann Hypothesis (though no proof of either is offered!).

Sure to be popular with not only students and instructors but all math aficionados, Gamma takes us through countries, centuries, lives, and works, unfolding along the way the stories of some remarkable mathematics from some remarkable mathematicians.

Jan 4, 2010

Informazioni sull'autore

Julian Havil is the author of Gamma: Exploring Euler's Constant, Nonplussed!: Mathematical Proof of Implausible Ideas, Impossible?: Surprising Solutions to Counterintuitive Conundrums, and The Irrationals: A Story of the Numbers You Can't Count On (all Princeton). He is a retired former master at Winchester College, England, where he taught mathematics for more than three decades.

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Gamma - Julian Havil



The Logarithmic Cradle

The use of this book is quite large, my dear friend,

No matter how modest it looks,

You study it carefully and find that it gives

As much as a thousand big books.

John Napier (1550–1617)


In an age when a ‘computer’ is taken to mean a machine rather than a person and calculations of fantastic complexity are routine and executed at lightning speed, constricting difficulties with ordinary arithmetic seem (and are) extremely remote. The technological freeing of mathematics from the manacles of calculation is very easy to take for granted, although the freedom has been newly won; as recently as the mid 1970s, a mechanical calculator, slide rule or table of logarithms would have been used to perform anything other than the most basic calculations—and the user would have been grateful for them. In the early 17th century none of these aids existed, although it was a period of massive scientific advance in many fields, progress that was increasingly and frustratingly hampered by the overwhelming difficulties of elementary arithmetic. Addition and subtraction were quite manageable, but how could the much more difficult tasks of multiplication and division be simplified, let alone the important but formidably challenging processes of root extraction?

, which, with a table of squares, provides some calculative help. The 16th century brought with it more sophisticated ideas, particularly one using the unlikely device of trigonometric identities, the brainchild of two Dutch mathematicians named Wittich and Clavius. Various relationships between the trigonometric definitions were appearing throughout Europe and, for example, François Vièta (1540–1603) is known to have derived (among others) the formula where the sine of an angle meant the length of the semi-chord of a circle, as in Figure 1.1; it therefore depended on the radius of the defining circle. In spite of the difficulties, extensive tables of the trigonometric functions were available, accurate to 12 or more decimal places (although written as integers by choosing a large whole number for the radius of the circle), their painstaking compilation motivated by practical problems in navigation, calendar construction and astronomy—and with the ingenuity of Wittich and Clavius they were set to other work.

Figure 1.1. The medieval view of the trigonometric functions.

The identity (1.1), with a set of trigonometric tables and scaling, could be used to convert multiplication to addition and subtraction (and division by 2); a technique known as ‘prosthaphaeresis’ (from the Greek for addition and subtraction). Division could be managed in much the same way, using identities for secants and cosecants. This slender aid found use wherever it became known and nowhere more effectively than in the astronomical observatories of Europe, none more prestigious than Uraniborg (Castle in the Sky), on the island of Hven, where the Swedish-Danish Astronomer Royal, Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), lived and worked. And here appears a romantic story, bringing about a delicious serendipity. In 1590, James VI of Scotland (later to become James I of England) sailed to Denmark to meet his prospective wife (Anne of Denmark) and was accompanied by his physician, a Dr John Craig. Appalling weather conditions had forced the party to land on Hven, near to Brahe's observatory, and quite naturally the great astronomer entertained the distinguished party until the weather cleared, partly by demonstrating to them the process of prosthaphaeresis. Dr Craig was Scottish and he had a particular friend who lived near Edinburgh: one John Napier.

John Napier, Baron Merchiston, believed that the world would end between 1688 and 1700, and published his belief in a 1593 polemic on Catholicism entitled A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St. John; its main thesis was that the Pope was the Antichrist. Since the book ran to 21 editions (10 in his own lifetime), he had some justification in believing that this would be his greatest claim to posterity (such as there was to be of it); of course, he was wrong (on both counts) and it is for his Table (or Canon) of Logarithms and the two explanations of them (the 1614 Descriptio and the 1619 posthumously published Constructio) that he is best remembered. A massively committed Protestant, but no ‘crank’, he found time from his contributions to the religious and political ferment of the day to efficiently manage his considerable estates, present prophetic (and surprisingly accurate) ideas for machines of war (what we would call the machine gun, the tank and the submarine) and, of course, to study mathematics. The private manuscript ‘De Arte Logistica’ (which was not published until 1839) provides an insight into his mathematical interests, which included a study of equations (and even consideration of imaginary numbers) and general methods for the extraction of nth roots.

The relationship between arithmetic and geometric behaviour, which we would now write as an × am = an+m, had been understood since antiquity; it is seen (for m and n positive integers) on Babylonian tablets and also in The Sandreckoner of the great Archimedes of Syracuse (278–212 B.C.), which we will mention again later on p. 93. In this treatise, which was dedicated to his relative, King Gelon of Syracuse, he constructed a systematic method for representing arbitrarily large numbers, using the number of grains of sand in the known universe as a tangibly large number; the work provides the first hint of the nature of logarithms. In its own way the identity also converts multiplication to addition; now, through his friend, Napier knew that with ingenuity more calculative aid was possible and, setting aside his study of arithmetic and algebra, he sought to improve the lot of scientists of his day, and in effect using this property of exponents. Twenty years later he had succeeded. In his own words, from the preface to the Descriptio:

Seeing there is nothing (right well-beloved Students in the Mathematics) that is so troublesome to Mathematicall practise, nor that doth more molest and hinder Calculators, than the Multiplications, Divisions, square and cubical Extractions of great numbers, which besides the tedious expense of time are for the most parte subject to many slippery errors. I began therefore to consider in my minde by what certaine and ready Art I might remove those hindrances. And having thought upon many things to this purpose, I found at length some excellent briefe rules to be treated of (perhaps) hereafter. But amongst all, none more profitable than this which together with the hard and tedious Multiplications, Divisions, and Extractions of rootes, doth also cast away from the worke it selfe, even the very numbers themselves that are to be multiplied, divided and resolved into rootes, and putteth other numbers in their place which perform as much as they can do, onely by Addition and Subtraction, Division by two or Division by three…


We will tread some of Napier's path by annotating a small part of the second publication, The Construction of the Wonderful Canon of Logarithms, usually abbreviated to the Constructio.

It begins with 60 numbered paragraphs that combine to explain his approach, provide a limited table of logarithms, and give instruction on how to make more extensive ones.

(1) A Logarithmic Table is a small table by the use of which we can obtain a knowledge of all geometrical dimensions and motions in space, by a very easy calculation.

His first sentence suggests Napier's interest in the practical applications of logarithms, and perhaps most particularly their usefulness to astronomers such as Tycho Brahe, with whom he corresponded during their development. Although his invented word ‘logarithm’ (a compound from the Greek words meaning ratio and number) appeared in the title, he used ‘artificial number’ in the body of the text and ‘Logarithmic Table’ was written ‘Tabula Artificialis’.

It is deservedly called very small, because it does not exceed in size a table of sines; very easy, because by it all multiplications, divisions, and the more difficult extractions of roots are avoided; for by only a very few most easy additions, subtractions and divisions by two, it measures quite generally all figures and motions.

The ‘modesty’ of the volume is referred to and he makes clear the arithmetic advantages of using logarithms, but refers only to square roots here.

It is picked out of numbers progressing in continuous proportion.

A hint as to the method.

(2) Of continuous progressions, an arithmetical is one which proceeds by equal intervals; a geometrical, one which advances by unequal and proportionally increasing or decreasing intervals…

His definition of arithmetic and geometric progressions, after which he lists several examples.

(3) In these progressions we require accuracy and ease in working. Accuracy is obtained by taking large numbers for a basis; but large numbers are most easily made from small by adding ciphers. Thus, instead of 100 000, which the less experienced make the greatest sine, the more learned put 10 000 000, whereby the difference of all sines is better expressed. Wherefore also we use the same for radius and for the greatest of our geometrical proportionals.

A cipher is a zero and attaching them to the right-hand side of a number does indeed increase the size of the number. To avoid the use of fractions, it was customary to ‘change the units’ (rather like using millimetres rather than metres). The ‘greatest sine’ is the radius of the circle, achieved when α = 90° in Figure 1.1, and Napier chooses to represent this as 10⁷ units, rather than a mere 10⁵.

(4) In computing tables, these large numbers may again be made still larger by placing a period after the number and adding ciphers. Thus in commencing to compute 10 000000 we put 10 000 000.000 000 0, lest the most minute error should become very large by frequent multiplication.

Here he acknowledges the dangers of compounding rounding errors and introduces the use of the decimal point to help cope with them. His idea is that, even though the final logarithm will be rounded off to an integer, the intermediate calculations should involve as much accuracy as possible.

for the square root. It was, though, the multi-faceted Dutch scientist, Simon Stevin (1548–1620), who is accepted to have championed the use of decimal places more than anyone before him, since in 1585 he produced the first known systematic presentation of the rules for manipulating them in the treatise De Thiende. His ideas soon reached a far greater audience when the book was quickly translated from Dutch to French to become La Disme, which has the subtitle ‘Teaching how all computations that are met in business may be performed by integers alone without the aid of fractions'. More of a pamphlet than a book, there is a resonance with Napier's thoughts in the quite splendid introduction.

To astrologers, surveyors, measurers of tapestry, gaugers, stereometers in general, mintmasters and to all merchants, Simon Stevin sends greeting.

A person who contrasts the small size of this book with your greatness, my most honourable sirs to whom it is dedicated, will think my idea absurd, especially if he imagines that the size of this volume bears the same ratio to human ignorance that its usefulness has to men of your outstanding ability; but in so doing he will have compared the extreme terms of the proportion which may not be done. Let him rather compare the third term with the fourth.

What is it here that is being propounded? Some wonderful invention? Hardly that, but a thing so simple that it scarce deserves the name invention; for it is as if some stupid country lout chanced upon great treasure without using any skill in the finding. If any one thinks that, in expounding the usefulness of decimal numbers, I am boasting of my cleverness in devising them, he shows without doubt that he has neither the judgement nor the intelligence to distinguish simple things from difficult, or else that he is jealous of a thing that is for the common good. However this may be, I shall not fail to mention the usefulness of these numbers, even in the face of this man's empty calumny. But, just as the mariner who has found by chance an unknown isle, may declare all its riches to the king, as, for instance, its having beautiful fruits, pleasant plains, precious minerals etc., without its being imputed to him as deceit; so may I speak freely of the great usefulness of this invention, a usefulness greater than I think any of you anticipates, without constantly priding myself on my achievements.

Figure 1.2.

His notation varied from very to reasonably cumbersome, for example, 3 ʘ 1ʘ 4 ʘ 2 ʘ,3/142 and 3¹⁴². Napier was not consistent with his own notation but his use of the decimal point in the Constructio was to bring about a standardization, at least to some extent; even today, the Americans would usually write 3.142, the Europeans 3,142 and the English 3.142. Certainly, decimal is far superior to fractional notation when comparing sizes—and composing tables—and it was Napier's tables of logarithms that did most to popularize this crucial initiative.

(5) In numbers distinguished thus by a period in their midst, whatever is written after the period is a fraction, the denominator of which is unity with as many ciphers after it as there figures after the period.

The original Descriptio did not include explicit use of decimals. He continues to give several examples of the meaning of decimal notation.

The next paragraph to interest us is

(25) Whence a geometrically moving point approaching a fixed one has its velocities proportionate to its distances from the fixed one…

A lengthy rhetoric follows, referring to the equivalent of Figure 1.2, to establish that if a point P starts at A and moves continuously towards B in such a way that BPr:BPr+1 is constant (and therefore moving ‘geometrically’), then that constant is the ratio of the point's velocities at Pr and Pr+1: that is, Vr : Vr+1 = BPr : BPr+1.

Figure 1.3.

To establish this, Napier considered the motion of P over equal time intervals of length t and implicitly approximated the varying speed over each interval by its value at its starting point, as we might do in step-by-step solutions of differential equations. In modern notation, suppose that at some stage P is at position Pr and that at some fixed time t later it is at Pr+1, then BPr = BPr+1 + PrPr+1 = BPr+1 + Vrt, using the above approximation. Since BPr+1 : BPr = k, BPr = kBPr + Vrt and Vr = (1/t)(1 – k)BPr. Of course, this means that Vr+1 = (1/t)(1 – k)BPr+1 and so Vr+1:Vr = BPr+1:BPr, as required. In a sense he was, of course, on subtle mathematical ground here, with the hint of instantaneous velocity, a concept that was to be dealt with by Newton seventy years in the future.

(26) The logarithm of a given sine is that number which has increased arithmetically with the same velocity throughout as that with which radius began to decrease geometrically, and in the same time as radius has decreased to the given sine.

This crucial paragraph defines his version of logarithm. Firstly, referring to Figure 1.2, AB is taken to be the ‘radius’ of length 10⁷ and the possible values of sin α are represented by distances along the line from B, with the whole 10⁷ at A and 0 at B. The point P starts at A and moves towards B with a speed numerically equal to its distance from B, which means that its initial speed is 10⁷ and its final speed 0 (although this is impossible to achieve). The key to the whole matter is his introduction of a second, infinite line to represent the motion of another point Q, starting at the same time as P from an origin O but moving continuously with a constant velocity of 10⁷ (see Figure 1.3). He defines a set of points Qr along this second line by the following: Qr is the point reached by Q just as P reaches Pr; since the time intervals are equal and Q moves at constant speed, the intervals between the Qr will all be equal and its motion ‘arithmetic’. The OQr are defined to be the logarithm of the corresponding BPr, which we will write as OQr = NapLog(BPr).

If we start to construct his table of logarithms, the implications of all this become more clear.

In the first time interval t, P moves to P1, where BP1 = 10⁷ – AP1 = 10⁷ – 10⁷t = 10⁷ (1 – t), approximating its speed over the interval by its initial speed of 10⁷. During this time, Q will have moved to Q1, where OQ1 = 10⁷t, which means that NapLog{10⁷(1 – t)} = 10⁷t. Repeating this analysis for the next time interval gives BP2 = 10⁷ – AP2 = 10⁷ – (AP1 + P1P2) = 10⁷ – 10⁷t V1t = 10⁷(1 – t) – V1t. Now we use the result of the previous paragraph to get V1:10⁷ = BP1:10⁷ and therefore V1 = BP1 = 10⁷(1 – t), which means that BP2 = 10⁷(1 – t) – 10⁷(1 – t)t = 10⁷(1 – t)². Since OQ2 = 10⁷ × 2t = 2(10⁷t), we have that NapLog{10⁷(1 – t)²} = 2(10⁷t). And so the process continues. In effect, he then takes t = 1/10⁷ to

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  • (5/5)

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

    The most brilliant technical math book I have enjoyed in years. A labor of love by a teacher/mathematician. I learnt a lot about Gamma.Did you know that the chances of two randomly picked integers being co-prime is 1:pi squared divided by six ? Just one of the charming side results using "elementary methods". Go on and delve into the history and the application by Euler, and others into this weird constant that keeps popping up in unnatural physical settings and mathematical ones, including the Riemann conjecture.

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

  • (4/5)
    The constant γ (called the Euler, or the Euler-Mascheroni) constant plays a significant role in Number Theory. Being, like π or e, one of the ubiquitous mathematical constants, it is, still today, remarkably less well known than its famous counterparts: this lack of knowledge is ilustrated by the fact that no one knows if γ is either a rational or a irrational! This nice popular science book tells the story of γ (if one may say so...) starting with John Napier's celebrated work on logarithms, then going on to discuss the harmonic series (starting with the celebrated proof of its divergence by Nicholas Oresme, c.a. 1350), and the Zeta function, the Gamma function, and the definition of γ. It the proceeds with a digression about some properties of γ, unexpected relations of the harmonic series and the logarithm function to problems in other areas (such as the optimal choice problem, and Benford's law), and concluding with two chapters about the distribution of primes and the work of Riemann (including his famous hypothesis.) Overall, this is a very interesting book that offers a relaxed exploration of a number of important mathematical issues in an enjoyable style.