Évariste Galois: Death at dawn

Mathematics has been, and is, feared as well as admired by many people, only remembers the famous sentence of St. Augustine:

The good Christian should beware of mathematicians and all those who practice sacrilegious prediction, particularly when they proclaim the truth. Because there is a danger that these people, allied with the devil, can blind the souls of men and trap them in the nets of hell.

The lives of mathematicians have often been more exciting than the usual image of the world of numbers suggests. Many of the most great mathematicians were saddened by a sea of dilemmas and mental pathologies, probably due to the difficulties of their own search. A classic example of this is Georg Cantor, the mathematical genius who devised the arithmetic of transfinite numbers in the late 19th century. After many years of tireless mental activity, trying to tame the elusive concept of infinity, manic-depressive psychosis, what they now call bipolar disorder, put an end to their creative work.

Already in the 20th century, we must not forget Kurt Gödel, a great mathematician who revolutionized, and continues to revolutionize through his work, the concepts of logic. Gödel showed that mathematical methods accepted since the time of classical Greece were not suitable for discovering the truths concerning natural numbers. This discovery destroyed the foundations on which all mathematics had been built up until then. Thus, his work led to the rebirth of mathematics and the establishment of computation on solid foundations from which computers and all their applications have been developed. But his triumph over the world of logic was based on an interior life that was plunged into darkness. Throughout his entire existence he fought against an extreme hypochondria. It seems that, apart acute attacks, this evil did not hinder his creative work very much. However, it is curious that the father of the new logic was obsessed throughout his life with unreasonable matters, such as his diet, because he was afraid of suffering from poisoning, leading him to malnutrition because of his refusal to eat food, and to the ingestion of multiple pills for an imaginary heart disease.

Other times it is more earthly matters that finish with the work of the creative scientist. Something like this happened to Évariste Galois, a young mathematics genius, who died at the early age of 20, on May 30,1832. And it wasn’t because of illness or inevitable conflicts. The sad end of Galois came as a result of a duel.

At the age of seventeen, having studied mathematics for only two years, he had already published articles of great technical importance and had begun his research on the theory of equations that would eventually lead him to formulate a new great theory.

The night before the duel, the young mathematician wrote a passionate letter to his friend Auguste Chevalier, describing some of his new discoveries, asking him to disseminate the results in case they were of any use. The young man’s emotional state was pitiful. At dawn, Galois left his room at a pension in Paris, and confronted the political activist Pescheux d’Herbouville, near a pond, in a duel of honour. As a result of the tragic encounter, the young mathematician was shot in the abdomen, and left to his fate. After being found by a pedestrian, he died a day later at Cochin Hospital.

Fourteen years later, mathematician Joseph Liouville published the manuscripts Galois had left to Chevalier. This tragic event gave birth to one of the branches of mathematical sciences that has generated most results for the world of science, a field of research that is still being explored: group theory.

At the age of seventeen, Galois had failed for the second time the mathematics test to enter the École Polytechnique de Paris. For this reason he continued to study at the École Normale, from which he was expelled at the age of nineteen because of his political activities, which also led him to prison twice. Among all his passionate political games, he took time to revolutionize mathematics, but finally, an issue, possibly amorous, mixed with political conflicts, led to the death of the young Galois.