Lecture explores historical intersections of math, music

On Wednesday Feb. 1, professor Jeff Johannes addressed students in a lecture titled “Évariste Galois, Hector Berlioz, and Algebraic Equations.” This lecture marked the beginning of the spring 2012 Mathematics Colloquia. 

As an associate professor of mathematics at Geneseo and an active member of some of America’s most prestigious mathematical associations, Johannes is a respected member of the local and national mathematical community. He began his discussion by naming the main characters of his story: mathematician Évariste Galois, composer Hector Berlioz and Algebraic Equations. 

Johannes offered a brief overview of the history of solving polynomial equations, insofar as the details pertained to the story of Berlioz and Galois.  

“Evidence of human ability to solve simple linear equations has been connected to most ancient societies dating back 4,000 years,” Johannes said. “There is even evidence proving that ancient Babylonians were able to solve quadratic equations, though using different techniques than modern mathematicians.” 

It was not until the 16th century, however, that humans learned how to solve polynomial equations systematically. Since then, mathematical theory has continued to evolve with the help of research mathematicians, including Galois.  

Johannes proceeded to illustrate the histories of Galois and Berlioz as they were faced with personal setbacks and advances in post-Napoleonic France.  

Though Berlioz was eight years older than Galois, both men grew up in 19th-century France, a time of intense political turmoil and modernization. Berlioz, who was raised in a rural village, was relatively sheltered from the political unrest. Galois, however, was raised in the suburbs of Paris, where thoughts of revolution simmered. 

Berlioz had his first encounter with Paris during the 1820s, when he began his study of medicine. By the mid-1820s, however, Berlioz had composed his first musical piece and enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire. 

During this time, Galois discovered his proficiency for mathematics at a prestigious boarding school in Paris. “There is good reason to believe that Galois absorbed more mathematics more quickly than any person in history,” Johannes said. It was during these teen years that Galois generated his most important contributions to the history of mathematics, including group theory. 

By the late 1820s, Berlioz had become infatuated with a famous actress – whom he would eventually marry – and found in her his inspiration for composing his most famous work, “Symphonie Fantastique.” Galois, on the other hand, had become increasingly disenchanted with the mathematical community, the education system and Parisian politics. 

In 1832, Galois died in a staged duel as a martyr for the revolution. Berlioz survived him to see the sequel to “Symphonie Fantastique” performed in Paris. 

“Because Johannes was very passionate about the material, the lecture was really interesting,” freshman Lindsey Kus said. 

“I think that the interaction of mathematics within the story of the two men was fascinating,” freshman Christian Igielinski said.