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Joseph-Louis Lagrange

Joseph-Louis Lagrange
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Joseph-Louis Lagrange

Born: 25 Jan 1736 in Turin, Sardinia-Piedmont (now Italy)

Died: 10 April 1813 in Paris, France

Joseph-Louis Lagrange is usually considered to be a French mathematician, but the Italian Encyclopaedia [40] refers to him as an Italian mathematician. They certainly have some justification in this claim since Lagrange was born in Turin and baptised in the name of Giuseppe Lodovico Lagrangia. Lagrange's father was Giuseppe Francesco Lodovico Lagrangia who was Treasurer of the Office of Public Works and Fortifications in Turin, while his mother Teresa Grosso was the only daughter of a medical doctor from Cambiano near Turin. Lagrange was the eldest of their 11 children but one of only two to live to adulthood.

Turin had been the capital of the duchy of Savoy, but become the capital of the kingdom of Sardinia in 1720, sixteen years before Lagrange's birth. Lagrange's family had French connections on his father's side, his great-grandfather being a French cavalry captain who left France to work for the Duke of Savoy. Lagrange always leant towards his French ancestry, for as a youth he would sign himself Lodovico LaGrange or Luigi Lagrange, using the French form of his family name.

Despite the fact that Lagrange's father held a position of some importance in the service of the king of Sardinia, the family were not wealthy since Lagrange's father had lost large sums of money in unsuccessful financial speculation. A career as a lawyer was planned out for Lagrange by his father, and certainly Lagrange seems to have accepted this willingly. He studied at the College of Turin and his favourite subject was classical Latin. At first he had no great enthusiasm for mathematics, finding Greek geometry rather dull.

Lagrange's interest in mathematics began when he read a copy of Halley's 1693 work on the use of algebra in optics. He was also attracted to physics by the excellent teaching of Beccaria at the College of Turin and he decided to make a career for himself in mathematics. Perhaps the world of mathematics has to thank Lagrange's father for his unsound financial speculation, for Lagrange later claimed:-

If I had been rich, I probably would not have devoted myself to mathematics.

He certainly did devote himself to mathematics, but largely he was self taught and did not have the benefit of studying with leading mathematicians. On 23 July 1754 he published his first mathematical work which took the form of a letter written in Italian to Giulio Fagnano. Perhaps most surprising was the name under which Lagrange wrote this paper, namely Luigi De la Grange Tournier. This work was no masterpiece and showed to some extent the fact that Lagrange was working alone without the advice of a mathematical supervisor. The paper draws an analogy between the binomial theorem and the successive derivatives of the product of functions.

Before writing the paper in Italian for publication, Lagrange had sent the results to Euler, who at this time was working in Berlin, in a letter written in Latin. The month after the paper was published, however, Lagrange found that the results appeared in correspondence between Johann Bernoulli and Leibniz. Lagrange was greatly upset by this discovery since he feared being branded a cheat who copied the results of others. However this less than outstanding beginning did nothing more than make Lagrange redouble his efforts to produce results of real merit in mathematics. He began working on the tautochrone, the curve on which a weighted particle will always arrive at a fixed point in the same time independent of its initial position. By the end of 1754 he had made some important discoveries on the tautochrone which would contribute substantially to the new subject of the calculus of variations (which mathematicians were beginning to study but which did not receive the name 'calculus of variations' before Euler called it that in 1766).

Lagrange sent Euler his results on the tautochrone containing his method of maxima and minima. His letter was written on 12 August 1755 and Euler replied on 6 September saying how impressed he was with Lagrange's new ideas. Although he was still only 19 years old, Lagrange was appointed professor of mathematics at the Royal Artillery School in Turin on 28 September 1755. It was well deserved for the young man had already shown the world of mathematics the originality of his thinking and the depth of his great talents.

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