Turnbull: The Great Mathematicians Preface

Herbert Westren Turnbull wrote The Great Mathematicians which was published in London in 1929. Turnbull wrote the Preface in St Andrews in September 1929. The authors of this History of Mathematics Archive are proud to follow in the footsteps of this eminent historian of mathematics. The Great Mathematicians was in many ways Turnbull's version of the archive of biographies that we have produced - many of the differences being due to the new medium of the web which allows us to link ideas in a way that is not possible in a book. What follows is Turnbull's Preface:-

The usefulness of mathematics in furthering the sciences is commonly acknowledged: but outside the ranks of the experts there is little inquiry into its nature and purpose as a deliberate human activity. Doubtless this is due to the inevitable drawback that mathematical study is saturated with technicalities from beginning to end. Fully conscious of the difficulties in the undertaking, I have written this little book in the hope that it will help to reveal something of the spirit of mathematics, without unduly burdening the reader with its intricate symbolism. The story is told of several great mathematicians who are representatives of their day in this venerable science. I have tried to show how a mathematician thinks, how his imagination, as well as his reason, leads him to new aspects of the truth. Occasionally it has been necessary to draw a figure or quote a formula - and in such cases the reader who dislikes them may skip, and gather up the thread undismayed a little further on. Yet I hope that he will not too readily turn aside in despair, but will, with the help of the accompanying comment, find something to admire in these elegant tools of the craft.

Naturally in a work of this size the historical account is incomplete: a few references have accordingly been added for further reading. It is pleasant to record my deep obligation to the writers of these and other larger works, and particularly to my college tutor, the late Mr W W Rouse Ball, who first woke my interest in the subject. My sincere thanks are also due to several former and present colleagues in St Andrews who have made a considerable and illuminating study of mathematics among the Ancients; and to kind friends who have offered many valuable suggestions and criticisms.


St Andrews
September 1929

Last Updated March 2006