May 17, 2010

People of First Class: Notable Mathematicians of Southern Italian Origin

By Niccolò Graffio
“There are many categories of scientists, people of second and third rank, who do their best, but do not go very far. There are also people of first class, who make great discoveries, which are of capital importance for the development of science. But then there are the geniuses, like Galilei and Newton. Well, Ettore was one of these.” – Enrico Fermi
Ettore Majorana
The "Ettore" Fermi was speaking about was of course, the eminent Sicilian physicist Ettore Majorana. Fermi was heaping praise on the intellectual accomplishments of his late colleague. While Fermi’s categorization of scientists is admittedly an oversimplification, it does serve to point out one sad fact about them. All too often it’s only the “greats” in the world of the sciences whose names find their way into the collective memory of the masses (thanks to good press).

For example: you’d be pressed to find anyone in America today who hasn’t at least heard the names of people like Archimedes, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and ‘Madame’ Marie Curie, even if most of them don’t know exactly what it was these people did that landed them in the history books.

Of course, being a great scientist or mathematician is no guarantee of widespread fame. This writer finds it bewildering that to this day most Americans he meets with college degrees confess to being unfamiliar with the name of the renowned German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss! Throw the names of some “B-list” entertainers and/or sports figures at them, however, and more often than not the light of recognition quickly sparks in their eyes. Ours is truly a society of inverted and peculiar values.

I digress. My point is simply this: there are many scientists and mathematicians, who, although not in the category of people like Einstein or Newton, nonetheless are deserving of honorable mention for the important contributions they made in the advancement of the sciences. This article makes mention of three of them, who are all the more deserving of our respect and recognition because, like us, they were children of the lands that made up the late Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Let no one ever tell you otherwise, people: we have contributed!

Francesco Maurolico
Francesco Maurolico was born in the city of Messina, Sicily on September 16th, 1494 to a family of Greek origin. He learned Greek, mathematics and astronomy from his father, Antonio, who in turn had been a pupil of the famous Greek scholar Constantine Lascaris. He took holy orders in 1521 and entered the Benedictine Order in 1550, becoming a monk at the monastery of Santa Maria del Parto à Castelbuono. Two years later he was consecrated as abbot at the Cattedrale San Nicolò di Messina.

In 1569 he was appointed professor at the University of Messina. Among his works were the following:
  • His Arithmeticorum libri duo (1575) includes the first known proof by mathematical induction.
  • He published a methodology for measuring the earth, which was used about a hundred years later (1670) by the French astronomer Jean-Felix Picard (not Jean-Luc Picard!) to measure the meridian.
  • His astronomical observations include sighting of the supernova that appeared in Cassiopeia in 1572. Tycho Brahe published details of his sighting in 1574.
  • He worked on numerous ancient Greek mathematical texts, providing new and sound interpretations of Greek mathematics.
He died in Messina, Sicily in July, 1575. The lunar crater Maurolycus is named in honor of him.

Giuseppe Lauricella was born in the city of Agrigento, Sicily in 1867. He studied at the University of Pisa where his professors included Luigi Bianchi, Ulisse Dini and Vito Volterra. He is remembered for his contributions to analysis (ex: Lauricella’s theorem) and the theory of elasticity.

In 1893 he defined and studied four hypergeometric series of three variables. He also indicated the existence of ten other hypergeometric functions of three variables. These were named and studied by S. Saran in 1954. There are therefore a total of 14 Lauricella-Saran hypergeometric functions.

Sadly, he died in Catania, Sicily from scarlet fever at the age of 45 in 1913.

Francesco Paolo Cantelli
Francesco Paolo Cantelli was born in Palermo, Sicily on December 20th, 1875. He attended the University of Palermo, graduating with a degree in mathematics in 1899. His thesis was on celestial mechanics.

His early work was in astronomy involving statistical analysis of data, in particular the statistical style of mathematics and to applications of probability to astronomy and other areas. In 1903 took a job as an actuary at the Istituti di Previdenza where he undertook research into probability theory publishing some important papers.

In 1925 Cantelli was called to Naples where he taught actuarial and financial mathematics. From 1931 he was professor at the University of Rome where he remained for the rest of his life, retiring from his chair in 1951.

He is chiefly remembered for important contributions he made to actuarial science, the foundations of probability theory and to the clarification of different types of probabilistic convergence. However, he also did research in financial mathematics as well. He died in Rome, Italy on July 21st, 1966.