Carl B. Boyer

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Carl Benjamin Boyer (November 3, 1906 – April 26, 1976) was an American historian of sciences, and especially mathematics. He wrote the books History of Analytic Geometry, The History of the Calculus and Its Conceptual Development, A History of Mathematics, and The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics. He served as book-review editor of Scripta Mathematica.


  • The Introductio does not boast an impressive number of editions, yet its influence was pervasive. In originality and in the richness of its scope it ranks among the greatest of textbooks; but it is outstanding also for clarity of exposition. Published two hundred and two years ago, it nevertheless possesses a remarkable modernity of terminology and notation, as well as of viewpoint. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.
  • But what, after all, are the integers? Everyone thinks that he or she knows, for example, what the number three is — until he or she tries to define or explain it.

The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics (1959)[edit]

Carl B. Boyer, The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics (1959)
  • Ptolemy left in his Optics, the earliest surviving table of angles of refraction from air to water. … This table, quoted and requoted until modern times, has been admired … A closer glance at it, however, suggests that there was less experimentation involved in it than originally was thought, for the values of the angles of refraction form an arithmetic progression of second order … As in other portions of Greek Science, confidence in mathematics was here greater than that in the evidence of the senses, although the value corresponding to 60° agrees remarkably well with experience.
    • p. 61
  • Robert Grosseteste … was born at the decisive moment when Greek and Arabic science became accessible in Latin versions.
    • p. 88
  • Robert [Grosseteste] became much interested in science and scientific method … He was conscious of the dual approach by means of induction and deduction (resolution and composition); i.e., from the empirical knowledge one proceeds to probable general principles, and from these as premises one them derives conclusions which constitute verifications or falsifications of the principles. This approach to science was not that far removed from Aristotle ...
    • p. 88
  • Descartes maintained his confidence in the instantaneity of light. … Yet in his derivation of the law of refraction, Descartes reasoned that light travelled faster in a dense medium than in one less dense. He seems to have had no qualms about comparing infinite magnitudes!
    • p. 204
  • Fermat had recourse to the principle of the economy of nature. Heron and Olympiodorus had pointed out in antiquity that, in reflection, light followed the shortest possible path, thus accounting for the equality of angles. During the medieval period Alhazen and Grosseteste had suggested that in refraction some such principle was also operating, but they could not discover the law. Fermat, however, not only knew (through Descartes) the law of refraction, but he also invented a procedure—equivalent to the differential calculus—for maximizing and minimizing a function of a single variable. … Fermat applied his method … and discovered, to his delight, that the result led to precisely the law which Descartes had enunciated. But although the law is the same, it will be noted that the hypothesis contradicts that of Descartes. Fermat assumed that the speed of light in water to be less than that in air; Descartes' explanation implied the opposite.
    • p. 205

Quotes about Carl B. Boyer[edit]

  • Carl B. Boyer … is more or less the Gibbon of math history.

External links[edit]

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