Evariste Galois

born: Oct 25, 1811 near Paris
died: May 31, 1832 in Paris

In all the history of science there is no completer example of the triumph of crass stupidity over untameable genius than is afforded by the all too brief life of Evariste Galois.
(E.T. Bell)

Brilliant. Brash. Unlucky. Died at 20. Galois groups and fields. Galois theory.

Galois was born in the village of Bourg-la-Reine where his father was mayor. His mother was an educated woman and taught Galois at home until he entered school at the age of 12. At first Galois did well in school and won prizes, but by his second year he became bored with the classical studies. His work became mediocre, and he had trouble with the school authorities. He happened on a geometry book by the mathematician Legendre, a difficult book, and quickly mastered it. The algebra textbook used in the school disgusted him and he ignored it. It lacked, he said, the creator’s touch of a mathematician, so he went to the masters, Lagrange and Abel. In reports, his teachers described him as “not wicked,” “original and queer,” “argumentative,” “there is only slovenliness and eccentricity in his assigned tasks — when he deigns to pay any attention to them,” and “He is wasting his time here, and all he does is torment his teachers and get into trouble.” (Of course, similar reports have been written about thousands of other students who cannot validly claim ‘genius’ as a defense.)

At 16, Galois took the examinations to enter the prestigious Polytechnique — and failed. Years later Terquem remarked, “A candidate of superior intelligence is lost with an examiner of inferior intelligence.” However, Galois found a mathematics teacher, Louis Richard, and really started studying and doing mathematics. His first paper, on continued fractions, was published when he was 17.

At 18, Galois reapplied to the Polytechnique, and again the examination went badly. Finally, during the oral part of the exam, he lost patience with one of the examiners and threw the eraser at him. It was a hit, but Galois could never apply there again.

At 19, Galois attended the university and wrote 3 original papers on the theory of algebraic equations. He submitted them to the Academy of Sciences for the competition in mathematics. The Secretary of the Academy took them home to read, but then died before writing a report about them and the papers were never found. Galois was understandably upset: “Genius is condemned by a malicious social organization to an eternal denial of justice in favor of fawning mediocrity.”

In 1830 the French masses revolted, and Galois was a staunch supporter. The director of the school locked the students in the school during the fighting and then expelled Galois for a public letter he wrote condemning the director. Galois tried to start his own school of mathematics, but got no students, so he joined the National Guard — “If a carcass is needed to stir up the people, I will donate mine.” Galois was jailed for supposedly threatening the King, but was found ‘not guilty’ by a jury. Finally he was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail for “illegally wearing a uniform.”

When he was finally released, his last misadventure began. “Thus it happened that he experienced his one and only love affair. In this, as in everything else, he was unfortunate. Galois took it violently and was disgusted with love, with himself, and with his girl.” A few days later Galois encountered some of his political enemies and “an affair of honor,” a duel, was arranged. Galois knew he had little chance in the duel, so he spent all night writing the mathematics which he didn’t want to die with him, often writing “I have not time. I have not time.” in the margins. He sent these results as well as the ones the Academy had lost to his friend Auguste Chevalier, and, on May 30, 1832, went out to duel with pistols at 25 paces.

Galois was shot in the intestines, and was taken to the hospital. He comforted his brother with “Don’t cry, I need all my courage to die at 20.” He died the day after the duel and was buried in an unmarked, common grave.

Twenty four years after Galois’ death, Joseph Liouville edited some of Galois’ manuscripts and published them with a glowing commentary. “I experienced an intense pleasure at the moment when, having filled in some slight gaps, I saw the complete correctness of the method by which Galois proves, in particular, this beautiful theorem: In order that an irreducible equation of prime degree be solvable by radicals it is necessary and sufficient that all its roots be rational functions of any two of them.”

Galois’ complete works fill only 60 pages, but he will be remembered.

Condensed from Men of Mathematics by E. T. Bell (1937), published by Simon and Schuster Pub. Co. DTH

Last Updated September 22, 2022