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You are watching: What did benjamin franklin say about doing math

Sure Ben Franklin to be smart, yet was he any good at math? Weekend Edition"s math guy Keith Devlin check out a book on the topic and reveals the answer.


SCOTT SIMON, host:

Benjamin Franklin was a brilliant, often vain man, who preferred to pat the function of the avuncular Everyman. That helped show that electricity can be captured and also used. That devised bifocals. However despite his contributions to science, he"s been viewed as a bad mathematician.

Paul Pasles, that teaches math at Villanova university in Pennsylvania, looks in ~ Mr. Franklin"s math an abilities in a brand-new biography that"s called "Benjamin Franklin"s Numbers."

Of course, we outsourced the analysis to our very own math guy, Keith Devlin of Stanford University, that joins united state from the studios there.

Keith, many thanks for being v us.

Professor KEITH DEVLIN (Mathematics, Stanford University): Hi, Scott. Many thanks for inviting me.

SIMON: that course, the didn"t spend lot time in school, for this reason his math had actually to it is in self-taught.

Prof. DEVLIN: Yeah. This ns think is where this story came around that that wasn"t great at mathematics because he actually, in his autobiography, that wrote around his schooling, and I quote, "I acquired fair composing pretty soon, but I failed in the arithmetic, and also made no progress in it."

SIMON: as you review the native of Franklin or review this new biography dubbed "Benjamin Franklin"s Numbers," perform you, Keith, reading this as a mathematician, apprehend part mathematical knowledge on Franklin"s part?

Prof. DEVLIN: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there"s a pair of good examples. Franklin had actually a lifelong attention in magic squares. Now, they room - castle go earlier thousands that years however they were type of number precursors to Sudoku. The idea is you go into numbers into a rectangle, into a square net of 3-by-3 or that a 4-by-4 and also you need to do them so the every row and every column and also every major diagonal, all add up come the exact same number.

Now, come the outsider this look like just doodling v numbers but, in fact, come construct among those things, you have actually to obtain deep right into the mathematics and also into the patterns. And Franklin did, in his lifetime, invested a the majority of time building these things and also you can only carry out that if you have a certain deep emotion for numbers.

The other example is what we discover in his political and also business writings. That is really early, much early than numerous other civilization in realizing that you can use what we would now call simple statistics in stimulate to do political and also business decisions.

SIMON: the course, it"s Jefferson who"s typically adjudged to it is in the great ranking intellect among that team of men and also women...

Prof. DEVLIN: Yeah.

SIMON: ...called the founding Fathers.

Prof. DEVLIN: Right.

SIMON: i was figuring Dolley Madison in over there too, and also surely part others.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But...

Prof. DEVLIN: Yeah.

SIMON: but people have suggested over the years that Franklin was perhaps the intellectual heavyweight of that group.

Prof. DEVLIN: Yeah. There"s one or two instances of that one. Certainly, Franklin, he created an article in - let"s see, ns made a keep in mind of it right here - in 1751 called Observations worrying the increase of Mankind and also the Peopling the Countries. And also that to be really among the an initial ever functions in what we now call demographics, making use of mathematical approaches to look at how populations grow and also how world move and also how cultures develop.

In fact, Franklin to be the first person that speculated that populaces probably increase exponentially. Now, we always associated that with Thomas Malthus, who was the one the demonstrated that. But, in fact, Malthus had already read Franklin"s work and also cited it as soon as he go his work.

And currently that you"ve pointed out Jefferson. The other instance that ns think is interesting - and this is somewhat speculative but Pasles provides this speculation in his book. We recognize that Franklin had a copy that Euclid"s standard geometry textbook "Elements." Now, what Euclid walk in "Elements," was display how you could construct mathematical truth starting with axioms, which mathematicians constantly describe as self-evident truths.

Now, if girlfriend look at thomas Jefferson"s an initial draft that the explanation of Independence, what it says is we organize this truth to be sacred and undeniable the all guys are created equal. Then along come Franklin and Adams and they occupational on it. And they redraft it. And also that phrase, sacred and undeniable, has turned into self-evident. Now what Pasles speculates, and I think this is a reasonable speculation, is that, affected by the method that mathematics builds certain truths on self-evidence assumptions, he thought it would be an excellent if a country was established on axioms, i.e. Self-evident truth.

SIMON: January 17th is his birthday, right?

Prof. DEVLIN: Absolutely. And as a mathematician, ns now have actually an extra reason to memory his birthday.

SIMON: Keith, thanks so much.

Prof. DEVLIN: Okay. Mine pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Keith Devlin, our understand mathematician girlfriend from Stanford University.

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