Tobias Dantzig

American mathematician (1884-1956)

Tobias Dantzig (February 19, 1884August 9, 1956) was a mathematician of Baltic German and Russian American heritage. His son, George Dantzig, is a key figure in the development of linear programming.



Number: The Language of Science (1930)

  • In the history of mathematics, the "how" always preceded the "why," the technique of the subject preceded its philosophy.
  • Greek thought was essentially non-algebraic, because it was so concrete. The abstract operations of algebra, which deal with objects that have been purposely stripped of their physical content, could not occur to minds which were so intently interested in the objects themselves. The symbol is not a mere formality; it is the very essence of algebra. Without the symbol the object is a human perception and reflects all the phases under which the human senses grasp it; replaced by a symbol the object becomes a complete abstraction, a mere operand subject to certain indicated operations.
  • The great Cartesian invention had its roots in those famous problems of antiquity which originated in the days of Plato. In endeavoring to solve the problems of the trisection of an angle, of the duplication of the cube and of the squaring of the circle, the ruler and compass having failed them, the Greek geometers sought new curves. They stumbled on the conic sections...There we find the nucleus of the method which Descartes later erected into a principle. Thus Apollonius referred the parabola to its axis and principal tangent, and showed that the semichord was the mean propotional between the latus rectum and the height of the segment. Today we express this relation by x2 = Ly, calling the height the ordinate (y) and the semichord the abscissa (x); the latus rectum being... L. ...the Greeks named these curves and many others... loci... Thus the ellipse was the locus of a point the sum of the distances of which from two fixed points was constant. Such a description was a rhetorical equation of the curve...
  • The mathematician may be compared to a designer of garments, who is utterly oblivious of the creatures whom his garments may fit. ...The conic sections, invented in an attempt to solve the problem of doubling the alter of an oracle, ended by becoming the orbits followed by the planets... The imaginary magnitudes invented by Cardan and Bombelli describe... the characteristic features of alternating currents. The absolute differential calculus, which originated as a fantasy of Riemann, became the mathematical model for the theory of Relativity. And the matrices which were a complete abstraction in the days of Cayley and Sylvester appear admirably adapted to the... quantum of the atom.
  • The arithmetization of mathematics... which began with Weierstrass... had for its object the separation of purely mathematical concepts, such as number and correspondence and aggregate, from intuitional ideas, which mathematics had acquired from long association with geometry and mechanics.
    These latter, in the opinion of the formalists, are so firmly entrenched in mathematical thought that in spite of the most careful circumspection in the choice of words, the meaning concealed behind these words, may influence our reasoning. For the trouble with human words is that they possess content, whereas the purpose of mathematics is to construct pure thought.
  • But how can we avoid the use of human language? The... symbol. Only by using a symbolic language not yet usurped by those vague ideas of space, time, continuity which have their origin in intuition and tend to obscure pure reason—only thus may we hope to build mathematics on the solid foundation of logic.
  • The progress of mathematics has been most erratic, and... intuition has played a predominant rôle in it. ...It was the function of intuition to create new forms; it was the acknowledged right of logic to accept or reject these new forms, in whose birth in had no part. ...the children had to live, so while waiting for logic to sanctify their existence, they throve and multiplied.
  • Between the philosopher's attitude towards the issue of reality and that of the mathematician there is this essential difference: for the philosopher the issue is paramount; the mathematician's love for reality is purely platonic.
  • There exists among the most primitive tribes of Australia and Africa a system of numeration which has neither 5, 10, nor 20 for base. It is a binary system, i.e., of base two. These savages have not yet reached finger counting. They have independent numbers for one and two, and composite numbers up to six. Beyond six everything is denoted by “heap.”

Henri Poincaré, Critic of Crisis: Reflections on His Universe of Discourse (1954)

  • The preface to the French edition of that work contains the following passage: "To me the French edition of my work is not a mere translation, but a transcription of ideas into a language in which it should have been written in the first place... I proudly acknowledge... my master. His words are among the most brilliant recollections of my youth; his piercing wisdom and potent prose have inspired my efforts of a riper age. To the memory of Henri Poincaré, the intellectual giant who was the first to recognize the role which the idiosyncrasies of the race play in the evolution of scientific ideas, I dedicate this book.
    • Preface

Ch. 1. The Iconoclast

  • To describe means to classify, and the man Poincaré defies classification, as does indeed his philosophy.
  • His essays on the foundations of science are cases in point. They strike one as extemporaneous speeches rather than edited articles. ...those who knew him best insisted that he rarely, if ever, would revise a manuscript, even if he was fully aware of its stylistic shortcomings.
  • Poincaré was an artist par excellence. Estheticism with him was not a mere creed: it was a way of life.
  • Poincaré's mind was not subject to hysteresis or hibernation. He had the unique faculty of dismissing an idea from his mind, the instant the stimulus was gone, and to supplant it immediately with another creative idea.
  • He was an iconoclast. But even in this category he defies classification. For, he fits no pattern, and is beyond all norm. He sought no followers, he shunned confederates, he hewed no tablets to replace those which he had shattered.

Ch. 2. The Age of Innocence

  • The evolution of scientific thought is inseparable from the history of man's efforts to resolve the perplexities of his own existence.
  • Science... may be viewed as man's supreme effort to find himself in that perplexing pattern which he calls Nature. ...Has he succeeded in achieving some measure of harmony with Nature? Or has he merely managed to transfer to Nature the irreconcilable duality within himself?
  • d'Alembert, who wrote the introduction to the Encyclopédie, resigned his editorship with the scathing remark that the work was like a harlequin's coat: some good stuff, but mostly rags.
  • Barely a hundred and fifty years had passed since Galileo's experiment at Pisa had ushered in the new order of things; a mere instant as compared with the previous life of the race. Yet, this brief span had witnessed a complete shift in the outlook of the intellectual leaders of humanity: from blind adherence to authority and dogma towards a healthy habit of facing facts and an enlightened faith in the efficacy of reason. Few doubted that this buoyancy and self-reliance of the leaders would eventually reach the masses, thus causing a profound metamorphosis in the attitude of the common man towards his own life and the destinies of his race.
    ...Led by thinkers, and under the banners of liberty, happiness, and truth, humanity was to emerge into a Golden Age, free from oppression and strife. Alas! The French Revolution... resembled more a convention of inquisitors and hangmen than it did an assembly of enlightened emancipators. ...After twenty years of adventure, the humanitarian aspirations bequeathed by the Encyclopedists, tattered and trampled first by a bloody republic, then by a still bloodier empire, were finally declared dead by the Holy Alliance.
  • The Industrial Revolution, too, failed to introduce a reign of freedom and happiness: it converted the medieval serf into an industrial slave; replaced the feudal baron by the industrial mogul, created in its wake an ever-growing, ever-shifting class of declassés, who had neither pride of ancestry nor love of tradition... The age of machine and competition, of capital, class-struggle, and demagogy was upon man.
  • One part of the dreams of the eighteenth century intellectuals was realized: the resources of nature did yield a magnificent harvest. But the thinkers who helped to tap these resources... failed to attend, detained in their studies and laboratories, lost in their dreams and calculations, seeking new fields, co-ordinating old and new, spinning abstract theories... the thinkers were unequal to the task of developing these vast resources, most of which they had themselves uncovered. The shrewd declassés, who had... the world to gain, pioneered this development and took possession of the earth.

The Bequest of the Greeks (1955)

  • The mathematical activity of Ancient Greece reached its peak during the glorious era of Euclid, Eratosthenes, Archimedes and Apollonius, a time when Greek letters, art and philosophy were already on the decline. was not Greece proper but its outposts in Asia Minor, in Lower Italy, in Africa that had contributed most to the development of mathematics.
  • Mathematics fluourished as long as freedom of thought prevailed; it decayed when creative joy gave way to blind faith and fanatical frenzy.
  • Despite the vociferous claims of the Platonists and Neoplatonists, Plato was not a mathematician. To Plato and his followers mathematics was largely a means to an end... they viewed the technical aspects of mathematics as a mere device for sharpening one's wits, or at most a course of training peparatory to handling the larger issues of philosophy. This is reflected in the very name "mathematics,"... a course of studies or... a curriculum. the Dialogues... such topics as harmony, triangular numbers, figurate numbers... which we view today as more or less irrelevant, if not trivial, were taken up at length. ...the guiding motive behind the... Pythagoreans and Platonists was... metaphysical ...which for the nonprofessional have all the earmarks of the occult. ...We also discover in the Pythagorean speculations more than a mere germ of... the scientific attitude.

Quotes about Dantzig

  • It has the very commendable aim of contributing towards stressing the cultural side of mathematics. ...there appears the widespread interchange of the definitions of excessive and defective numbers. is stated that Euclid contended that every perfect number is of the form 2n-1(2n -1). It is true that Euclid proved that such numbers are perfect whenever 2n - 1 is a prime number but there seems to be no evidence to support the statement that he contended that no other such numbers exist. is stated that the arithmetization of mathematics began with Weierstrass in the sixties of the last century. The fact that this movement is much older was recently emphasized by H. Wieleitner... it is stated that the arithmos of Diophantus and the res of Fibonacci meant whole numbers, and... we find the statement that in the pre-Vieta period they were committed to natural numbers as the exclusive field for all arithmetic operations. On the contrary, operations with common fractions appear on some of the most ancient mathematical records.
    • G. A. Miller, Review of Number: The Language of Science (1931) Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. Vol. 37, Number 1
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