François Viète, the Father of Modern Algebra
The previous installment of the History of Science blog examined the role of Andreas Vesalius as the first modern physician and how he marked the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. François Viète (Latinized as Franciscus Vieta) was a mathematician whose claim to fame arrived fifty years after Vesalius’s instrumental anatomy text. Viète (1540-1603) of Fontenay-le-Comte, France, originally studied law at the University of Poitiers. After graduating in 1560, he worked in law for only four years before deciding to pursue other fields. Viète spent a few years tutoring Catherine de Parthenay, the heiress of an influential French family. In 1570, he left for Paris and began studying the topics that most interested him: mathematics and astronomy. Within a year, Viète published a mathematical paper, the first of many to come. Due to his family’s high status, Viète was appointed a position in the government of Brittany, a northwest region of France, by the reigning Charles IX in 1573. Upon Charles IX’s death, Henry III took the throne and made Viète his royal privy counselor. As royal counselor, Viète was responsible for a variety of duties. Once he was even tasked with decoding a difficult Spanish cipher. Convinced that it was unbreakable, the King of Spain accused the French of using black magic upon Viète’s breaking the 500-character code.
Aside from his political work, Viète continued his personal pursuit of mathematics. As the political and religious climate of France became increasingly heated, Viète took time away from politics to focus on academics. Viète produced his most important texts during this period. In 1591, he published Isagoge in Artem Analyticem, where he encouraged the use of letters as variables in the place of known and unknown quantities, a change that proved immensely useful in furthering the field of mathematics. Earlier mathematicians had been hindered by verbal descriptions of unknown quantities, more complicated symbolic systems of values, or other cruder ways of representing mathematics. Allowing the painless rearrangement of equations, Viète’s notation method spread from mathematics to many other fields, including physics, chemistry, and economics. Even the logical notation used in philosophy arose in part due to Viète and his algebraic notation. Viète’s pioneering symbol system completely altered the field of mathematics, rightfully earning him the title of “Father of Modern Algebra.”
Vijay Venkatesan is a freshman from Baker College at Rice University.