John Aubrey’s Brief Lives offers a gossipy and unreliable, but fascinating, peek into the lives of the great and good in late seventeenth-century England. As this was the period when what we now regard as modern science was starting to emerge, it’s not suprising that some familiar figures (such as Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke) wander through his anecdotes. Mathematicians are among Aubrey’s subjects too; and remarkably, he seems to have anticipated practically every cliché that Hollywood now expects of a mathematician. Here are a few examples…
In Aubrey’s picture of John Wallis, for example, we see the scheming professor with one eye perpetually on his own advancement and very few scruples when it comes to achieving this:
Anno Domini 1657, he gott himselfe chosen by unjust means to be Custos Archivorum of the University of Oxon…
‘Tis certain that he is a perhaps of reall worth, and may stand with much glory upon his owne basis, needing not to be beholding to any man for fame, of which he is so extremely greedy, that he steales flowers from others to adorne his owne cap, — e.g. he lies at watch, at Sir Christopher Wren’s discourse, Mr. Robert Hooke’s, Dr. William Holder, &c.; putts downe their notions in his note booke, and then prints it, without owneing the authors. This frequently, of which they complaine.
I have heard Mr. Hobbes say that he was wont to draw lines on his thigh and on the sheetes, abed, and also multiply and divide.
Not, perhaps obsessive enough, though, since
for ten yeares together his thoughts were much, or almost altogether, unhinged from the mathematiques… which was a great putt-back to his mathematicall improvement for in ten yeares’ (or better) discontinuance of that study (especially) one’s mathematiques will become very rusty.
(You may recall Mr Hobbes’s ongoing dispute with Professor Wallis from an earlier article…)
Mr Hobbes had nothing, though, on two pupils of William Oughtred, himself a formidable type of the absent-minded professor whose “head was always working. He would drawe lines and diagrams on the dust”:
Mr. Austin (a most ingeniose man) was his scholar, and studyed so much that he became mad, fell a laughing, and so dyed, to the great griefe of the old gentleman. Mr. Stokes, another scholar, fell mad, and dream’t that the good old gentleman came to him, and gave him good advice, and so he recovered, and is still well.
(Mr. Stokes’s recovery doesn’t seem to have been permanent, alas: a few pages later Aubrey notes that he “became sober again, but I feare like a crackt glasse. Edidit Mr. Oughtred’s Trigonometrie… Became a sott. Dyed in Newgate, prisoner for debt, April, 1681.”)
In those darke times astrologer, mathematician, and conjuror, were accounted the same things; and the vulgar did verily beleeve him to be a conjuror. He had a great many mathematicall instruments and glasses in his chamber, which did also confirme the ignorant in their opinion, and his servitor (to impose on freshmen and simple people) would tell them that sometimes he should meet the spirits comeing up his staires like bees.
This reputation came close to backfiring on him eventually, though:
One time being at Hom Lacy in Herefordshire… he happened to leave his watch in the chamber windowe–(watches were then rarities)–The maydes came in to make the bed, and hearing a thing in a case cry Tick, Tick, Tick, presently concluded that this was his Devill, and tooke it by the string with the tongues, and threw it out of the windowe into the mote (to drowne the Devill.) It so happened that the string hung on a sprig of an elder that grew out of the mote, and this confirmed them that ’twas the Devill.
Sciatica he cured it, by boyling his buttock.
The treatment never really caught on.