Eric Temple Bell

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The so-called obvious was repeatedly scrutinized from every angle and was frequently found to be not obvious but false. "Obvious" is the most dangerous word in mathematics.

Eric Temple Bell (7 February 188321 December 1960) was a mathematician and science fiction author, born in Scotland who lived in the U.S. for most of his life. He published non-fiction using his given name and fiction as John Taine.


  • The cowboys have a way of trussing up a steer or a pugnacious bronco which fixes the brute so that it can neither move nor think. This is the hog-tie, and it is what Euclid did to geometry.
    • The Search for Truth (1934), p. 191
  • Euclid taught me that without assumptions there is no proof. Therefore, in any argument, examine the assumptions. Then, in the alleged proof, be alert for inexplicit assumptions. Euclid's notorious oversights drove this lesson home.
    • Mathematics Magazine, Vol. 23-24. (1949), p. 161
  • Guided only by their feeling for symmetry, simplicity, and generality, and an indefinable sense of the fitness of things, creative mathematicians now, as in the past, are inspired by the art of mathematics rather than by any prospect of ultimate usefulness.

Men of Mathematics (1937)

Men of Mathematics: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Mathematicians from Zeno to Poincaré (1937)
  • Objections... inspired Kronecker and others to attack Weierstrass' "sequential" definition of irrationals. Nevertheless, right or wrong, Weierstrass and his school made the theory work. The most useful results they obtained have not yet been questioned, at least on the ground of their great utility in mathematical analysis and its implications, by any competent judge in his right mind. This does not mean that objections cannot be well taken: it merely calls attention to the fact that in mathematics, as in everything else, this earth is not yet to be confused with the Kingdom of Heaven, that perfection is a chimaera, and that, in the words of Crelle, we can only hope for closer and closer approximations to mathematical truth—whatever that may be, if anything—precisely as in the Weierstrassian theory of convergent sequences of rationals defining irrationals.
  • The pursuit of pretty formulas and neat theorems can no doubt quickly degenerate into a silly vice, but so also can the quest for austere generalities which are so very general indeed that they are incapable of application to any particular.

Mathematics: Queen and Servant of Science (1938)

Mathematics: Queen and Servant of Science (1951) more online editions
  • Out of fifty mathematical papers presented in brief at such a meeting, it is a rare mathematician indeed who really understands what more than half a dozen are about.
    • p. 7
  • The so-called obvious was repeatedly scrutinized from every angle and was frequently found to be not obvious but false. "Obvious" is the most dangerous word in mathematics.
    • p. 16
  • Fashion as king is sometimes a very stupid ruler. As was observed a little way back, the kernel of Plücker's theory of geometric dimensionality is that the dimensionality of a given space is not an absolute constant, but depends upon the elements, accepted as irreducible, in terms of which the space is described.
    • p. 146
  • Some of his deepest discoveries were reasoned out verbally with very few if any symbols, and those for the most part mere abbreviations of words. Any impatient student of mathematics or science or engineering who is irked by having algebraic symbolism thrust on him should try to get on without it for a week.
    • p. 226
  • Wherever groups disclosed themselves, or could be introduced, simplicity crystallized out of comparative chaos.
    • p 164
  • Some, of my unmathematical friends have incautiously urged me to include a note about the origin of modern calculating machines. This is the proper place to do so, as the Queen of queens has enslaved a few of these infernal things to do some of her more repulsive drudgery. What I shall say about these marvelous aids to the feeble human intelligence will be little indeed, for two reasons: I have always hated machinery, and the only machine I ever understood was a wheelbarrow, and that but imperfectly.
    • p. 274
  • Science makes no pretension to eternal truth or absolute truth; some of its rivals do. That science is in some respects inhuman may be the secret of its success in alleviating human misery and mitigating human stupidity.
    • p. 291

The Development of Mathematics (1940)

  • Abstractness, sometimes hurled as a reproach at mathematics, is its chief glory and its surest title to practical usefulness. It is also the source of such beauty as may spring from mathematics.
    • p. 9
  • The mistakes and unresolved difficulties of the past in mathematics have always been the opportunities of its future; and should analysis ever appear to be without or blemish, its perfection might only be that of death.
    • p. 283

Quotes about E. T. Bell

  • He was admired for his science fiction and his Men of Mathematics. I was shocked when, just a few years later, Walter Pitts told me the latter was nothing but a string of Hollywood scenarios; my own subsequent study of the sources has shown me that Pitts was right, and I now find the contents of that still popular book to be little more than rehashes enlivened by nasty gossip and banal or indecent fancy.
    • Clifford Truesdell, in An Idiot's Fugitive Essays on Science : Methods, Criticism, Training, Circumstances (1984), p. 423-4
  • By the time I was a student in high school I was reading the classic Men of Mathematics by E. T. Bell and I remember succeeding in proving the classic Fermat theorem about an integer multiplied by itself p times where p is a prime.
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