This blog likes to acknowledge the forgotten innovators of science. Niels Henrik Abel is one of them.
Abel was born August 5, 1802 in Norway. After his older brother refused to go away to school, Niels was sent in his place at the age of 13. A new math teacher became his mentor, giving him private lessons and even supporting him at university after Abel’s father died. Abel’s academic work was undistinguished in every subject except for mathematics, where he soon surpassed his teachers.
At the age of 19, Abel developed a mathematical proof that the solution to a fifth-degree polynomial equation cannot be expressed in general algebraic terms. Abel’s professors sent the work to the area’s leading mathematician. The man refused to believe that a teenager could solve a problem that had stymied mathematicians for 250 years, so he dismissed it as the work of a “crank.”
At the age of 21, Abel submitted for publication a paper discussing a method to integrate all differential formulas. The work was lost by the publisher and has never been found.
That same year, Abel discovered an error in his earlier fifth-degree polynomial proof. He developed a new proof for any polynomial five degrees or higher (now known as the Abel-Ruffini theorem). To save on printing costs, he condensed his work to six pages. The result was so dense and difficult that most of Abel’s audience couldn’t understand it, and it was largely ignored until after his death.
At the age of 24, Abel completed what he regarded as his most important work, a theorem on the addition of algebraic differentials. The reviewer misplaced it and it was not found until after Abel’s death.
Due to his lack of published works, Abel’s university scholarship was not renewed. He was forced to subsist on loans and tutoring as he searched vainly for a permanent teaching position. During Christmas of 1828, Abel contracted tuberculosis while traveling back to Norway to visit his fiancée. He succumbed to the disease and died in poverty on April 6, 1829. He was 26 years old. Two days later, a letter arrived congratulating Abel. He had just been awarded a professorship at the University of Berlin.
Today, Abel is remembered for (among other things) his polynomial proof, Abelian functions and group theory that is a cornerstone of both mathematics and physics. Charles Hermite declared that “Abel has left mathematicians enough to keep them busy for 500 years.” In many ways, Abel was to mathematics what Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was to music: a prolific and game-changing genius who died much too soon.
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Agilent University Relations partners with universities around the world. In 2013, Agilent and the Agilent Technologies Foundation provided $13.9 million in university grants and equipment supporting science and technology research.
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