Florian Cajori

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Florian Cajori (1890s)

Florian Cajori (1859 – 1930) was a Swiss-American professor of mathematics and physics. He was one of the most celebrated historians of mathematics in his day. Cajori's A History of Mathematics (1894) was the first popular presentation of the history of mathematics in the United States and his 1928 –1929 History of Mathematical Notations has been described as "unsurpassed."

See also: A History of Mathematics


  • The opinion is widely prevalent that even if the subjects are totally forgotten, a valuable mental discipline is acquired by the efforts made to master them. While the Conference admits that, considered in itself this discipline has a certain value, it feels that such a discipline is greatly inferior to that which may be gained by a different class of exercises, and bears the same relation to a really improving discipline that lifting exercises in an ill-ventilated room bear to games in the open air. The movements of a race horse afford a better model of improving exercise than those of the ox in a tread-mill.
  • Our so-called "Arabic" notation owes its excellence to the application of the principle of local value and the use of a symbol for zero. It is now conclusively established that the principle of local value was used by the Babylonians much earlier than by the Hindus and that the Maya of Central America used the principle and symbols for zero in a well-developed numeral system of their own. The notation of Babylonia used the scale of 60, that of the Maya, the scale 20 (except in one step). It follows, therefore, that the present controversy on the origin of our numerals does not involve the question of the first use of local value and symbols for zero; it concerns itself only with the time and place of the first application of local value to the decimal scale and with the origin of the forms or shapes of our ten numerals. ... Hurt by the alleged arrogance of certain Greek scholars, Sebokht praises the science of the Hindus and speaks of "their valuable methods of computation. . . . I wish only to say that this computation is done by means of nine signs." Unfortunately, he leaves it to us to guess whether or not he used the zero. The passage, written about 662 A.D., is the earliest reference that has been found outside of India to our numerals. ...The form of the symbols with the zero, used in India, differed so widely from the old forms without the zero used there, that the former seem to have had an independent origin and to have been imported into India.
    ...The following are outstanding facts:
    1. The earliest reliable record of the use of our numerals with zero is an inscription of 867 A.D. in India.
    2. The validity of the testimony of early Arabic writers ascribing to India the numerals with zero is shaken, but not destroyed.
    3. There is not a scintilla of evidence in the form of old manuscripts or numeral inscriptions to support the Greek origin of our numerals.
    4. At present the hypothesis of the Hindu origin of our numerals stands without serious rival. But this hypothesis is by no means firmly established.
    • "The Controversy on the Origin of Our Numerals" The Scientific Monthly Vol. 9, No. 5 (Nov., 1919), pp. 458-464
  • My quotations from Newton suggest the motive which induced him to take a stand against the use of hypotheses, namely, the danger of becoming involved in disagreeable controversies. ...Newton could no more dispense with hypotheses in his own cogitations than an eagle can dispense with flight. Nor did Newton succeed in avoiding controversy.
    • Explanatory Appendix, Sir Isaac Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World (1934) Tr. Andrew Motte, p. 674

A History of Mathematics (1893)[edit]

  • The history of mathematics may be instructive as well as agreeable ; it may not only remind us of what we have, but may also teach us to increase our store. Says De Morgan, "The early history of the mind of men with regards to mathematics leads us to point out our own errors; and in this respect it is well to pay attention to the history of mathematics." It warns us against hasty conclusions; it points out the importance of a good notation upon the progress of the science; it discourages excessive specialization on the part of the investigator, by showing how apparently distinct branches have been found to possess unexpected connecting links; it saves the student from wasting time and energy upon problems which were, perhaps, solved long since; it discourages him from attacking an unsolved problem by the same method which has led other mathematicians to failure; it teaches that fortifications can be taken by other ways than by direct attack, that when repulsed from a direct assault it is well to reconnoitre and occupy the surrounding ground and to discover the secret paths by which the apparently unconquerable position can be taken.
  • The history of mathematics is important also as a valuable contribution to the history of civilization. Human progress is closely identified with scientific thought. Mathematical and physical researches are a reliable record of intellectual progress.
    • p. 4; Cited in: Moritz (1914, 90); Study and research in mathematics
  • It is a remarkable fact in the history of geometry, that the Elements of Euclid, written two thousand years ago, are still regarded by many as the best introduction to the mathematical sciences.
    • p. 30 Reported in Memorabilia mathematica or, The philomath's quotation-book by Robert Edouard Moritz. Published 1914.
  • Comparatively few of the propositions and proofs in the Elements are his [Euclid's] own discoveries. In fact, the proof of the "Theorem of Pythagoras" is the only one directly ascribed to him.
    • p. 30, Reported in Moritz (1914)
  • The Elements has been considered as offering models of scrupulously rigorous demonstrations. It is certainly true that in point of rigour it compares favourably with its modern rivals; but when examined in the light of strict mathematical logic, it has been pronounced by C.S. Peirce to be "riddled with fallacies." The results are correct only because the writer's experience keeps him on his guard.
    • p. 37. Reported in Moritz (1914)
  • The miraculous powers of modern calculation are due to three inventions : the Arabic Notation, Decimal Fractions and Logarithms.
    • p. 161; Cited in: Moritz (1914, 263); Arithmetics
  • Fermat died with the belief that he had found a long-sought-for law of prime numbers in the formula a prime, but he admitted that he was unable to prove it rigorously. The law is not true, as was pointed out by Euler in the example 4,294,967,297 = 6,700,417 times 641. The American lightning calculator Zerah Colburn, when a boy, readily found the factors but was unable to explain the method by which he made his marvellous mental computation.
    • p. 180; also cited in Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath's Quotation-book (1914) pp. 156-157.
  • In 1735 the solving of an astronomical problem, proposed by the Academy, for which several eminent mathematicians had demanded several months' time, was achieved in three days by Euler with aid of improved methods of his own... With still superior methods this same problem was solved by the illustrious Gauss in one hour.
    • p. 248; As cited in: Moritz (1914, 155); Persons and anecdotes.
  • Most of his [Euler's] memoirs are contained in the transactions of the Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg, and in those of the Academy at Berlin. From 1728 to 1783 a large portion of the Petropolitan transactions were filled by his writings. He had engaged to furnish the Petersburg Academy with memoirs in sufficient number to enrich its acts for twenty years a promise more than fulfilled, for down to 1818 [Euler died in 1793] the volumes usually contained one or more papers of his. It has been said that an edition of Euler's complete works would fill 16,000 quarto pages.
    • pp. 253-254; Cited in: Moritz (1914, 155); Persons and anecdotes.
  • J. J. Sylvester was an enthusiastic supporter of reform [in the teaching of geometry]. The difference in attitude on this question between the two foremost British mathematicians, J. J. Sylvester, the algebraist, and Arthur Cayley, the algebraist and geometer, was grotesque. Sylvester wished to bury Euclid "deeper than e'er plummet sounded" out of the schoolboy's reach; Cayley, an ardent admirer of Euclid, desired the retention of Simson's Euclid. When reminded that this treatise was a mixture of Euclid and Simson, Cayley suggested striking out Simson's additions and keeping strictly to the original treatise.
    • p. 285; Cited in: Moritz (1914, 148); Persons and anecdotes

Quotes about Cajori[edit]

  • What is perhaps the greatest blow that has ever come to the student body of Colorado College came last Friday when it was announced that Dean Florian Cajori, for about thirty years the best-known and best-liked professor in the College, had resigned and will not be back with us next year. It was not only on account of the value of his service as an instructor that the students felt such a sense of loss at the announcement, but more on account of the friendship and intimate relationship which he has shown to us. "Caj"… has been closer to this student body than any other one man. It was usually "Caj" who made the speech at the Barbecue, it was "Caj" who talked upcoming events in chapel, it was "Caj" who was always out there at the picnic or the Festival or the ball game. No form of student activity has seemed entirely complete unless our "Caj" has been there or has had something to do with it.
    • The Tiger student newspaper, May 14, 1918 editorial, Colorado College
  • They [the students] looked upon "Caj" as one of their best friends in all the College, and thought of him as the one responsible for their later success. He has had a personal appeal to a great many students... It was the appeal of the one with a human interest in what somebody else is doing, the appeal of the true friend and the hearty well-wisher. It was the appeal of "Caj".
    • The Tiger student newspaper, May 14, 1918 editorial, Colorado College
  • As a mathematician Dean Cajori has achieved a name which very few in this world can equal, a name which is respected all over the globe. His text books and his writings have been published all over the world. We are proud of all the achievements of our "Caj", of course, but we are especially proud of what he has done for us here, and it is for this reason that we shall always hold him in our memory. As a friend and as an instructor he has been more to us than we can ever measure, and we shall always look back upon the days when we had "Caj".
    • The Tiger student newspaper, May 14, 1918 editorial, Colorado College
  • Professor Florian Cajori died August 14, 1934. In May of the following year I was invited by the University of California Press to edit this work. ...this is a revision of Motte's translation of the Principia. From many conversations with Professor Cajori, I know that he had long cherished the idea of revising Newton's immortal work by rendering certain parts into modern phraseology (e.g., to change the reading of "reciprocally in the subduplicate ratio of " to "inversely as the square root of") and to append historical and critical notes which would provide instruction to some readers and interest to all. This is his last work; one of the most fitting to crown a life devoted to investigation and to the history of the sciences in his chosen field.
    • R. T. Crawford, Editor's Note, Sir Isaac Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World (1934) Isaac Newton, Florian Cajori.

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