S2EP11: The life and times of the hermit mathematician

The Autodidactic Podcast
S2EP11: The life and times of the hermit mathematician

Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 11. Before we begin I would like to do a little self-promotion and tell you about my other activities online. I have a YouTube Channel and I’ll put the link in the show notes, as well as a number of books both fiction and non-fiction. I’ll also put the links to some of these in the show notes. So if you want to see the links, or the transcript of these podcasts you can find them all at https://autodidactic.info/

Let’s get on with the show. This week I’m going to be talking about a not so famous mathematician. A person very few people will have heard of, and who even during his lifetime was considered an oddball and an eccentric. A self-trained English mathematician and a pioneer of electromagnetic theory. You may not have heard his name, but you may have heard some of the words he invented such as “impedance” or “inductance” especially if you work with or have knowledge of electrics or electronics.

Oliver Heaviside is the person I’m talking about. He was born on the 18th of May 1850 to Rachel Elizabeth West and Thomas Heaviside in Camden Town, a notoriously crime-ridden, lower class area of London. Thomas Heaviside was a wood engraver and water colour artist. Oliver was the youngest of four sons. Oliver Heaviside had a challenging and troubled youth. The family lived for years on the ragged edge of poverty their home was just around the corner from where Charles Dickens had lived during the most miserable part of his childhood.

Life in the slums was difficult enough, but a childhood bout with scarlet fever, which left him nearly deaf, added to his troubles. Heaviside’s mother ran a school for girls, which he attended rather than attending the neighbourhood school. This offered some protection from the influence of the local ruffians. Heaviside’s hearing impairment made making friends difficult, however his school results were rather good and in 1865 he was placed fifth from 500 pupils.

Despite being bright and a good student, by age 16 the socially awkward Heaviside had had enough of formal education and left school. Perhaps he was more disillusioned with school than with learning since he continued to study after leaving school, in particular he learnt Morse code, studied electricity and studied further languages in particular Danish and German. He was aiming at a career as a telegrapher and in this he was advised and helped by his uncle Charles Wheatstone.

In 1868 Heaviside went to Denmark and became a telegrapher. While working there, Heaviside noticed that signals from England to Denmark could be sent faster than those sent from Denmark to England. Those in the telegraph industry thought this was due to some strange and unknown property of the 347-nautical mile undersea cable carrying the messages. Heaviside wasn’t so sure and was able to show mathematically that if everything is identical on both ends of the cable, the maximum rate must be the same in both directions. He then showed, again mathematically, that any difference must be due to different resistance at each end. Simply put, the equipment in England had lower electrical resistance and could push more current faster into the capacitance of the cable, and thus could send at a higher rate.

He progressed quickly in his profession and returned to England in 1871 to take up a post in Newcastle upon Tyne in the office of Great Northern Telegraph Company which dealt with overseas traffic.

Heaviside quit the cable company in May 1874, at age 24, and returned to London to live with his parents. He never again held a regular job, but instead worked full-time on electrical problems. His brother Arthur provided financial support and collaborated on projects related to his engineering work, but for the next decade or more Heaviside worked in almost complete isolation in his parents’ spare room, pushing back the frontiers of electrical knowledge on his own.

Heaviside became increasingly deaf as he worked on his own researches into electricity. While still working as chief operator in Newcastle he had published papers on electricity, the first in 1872 and then the second in 1873 was of sufficient interest to the author James Maxwell a noted Scottish mathematician that he mentioned the results in the second edition of his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. From 1874 he continued working on Maxwells equations.

Heaviside was able to greatly simplify Maxwell’s 20 equations in 20 variables, replacing them by four equations in two variables. Today we call these ‘Maxwell’s equations’ forgetting that they are in fact ‘Heaviside’s equations’.

Heaviside results on electromagnetism, impressive as they were, were overshadowed by the important methods in vector analysis which he developed in his investigations. His operational calculus, developed between 1880 and 1887, caused much controversy however. He introduced his operational calculus to enable him to solve the ordinary differential equations which came out of the theory of electrical circuits.

Heaviside gave, for the first time, the conditions necessary to transmit a signal without distortion but Heaviside dropped the idea and it was patented in 1904 in the United States. Michael Pupin of Columbia University and George Campbell of ATT both read Heaviside’s papers about using induction coils at intervals along the telephone line. Both Campbell and Pupin applied for a patent which was awarded to Pupin in 1904.

Edmund Whittaker rated Heaviside’s operational calculus as one of the three most important discoveries of the late 19th Century.

In 1902 Heaviside predicted that there was a conducting layer in the atmosphere which allowed radio waves to follow the Earth’s curvature. This layer in the atmosphere, the Heaviside layer, is named after him. Its existence was proved in 1923 when radio pulses were transmitted vertically upward and the returning pulses from the reflecting layer were received.

At the climax of the musical Cats, chorus members sing about how Grizabella is about to rise “Up, up, up past the Russell Hotel/ Up, up, up, up to the Heaviside Layer,” they are alluding to Heaviside’s idea that there must be a conducting layer in the upper atmosphere—though I’m sure very few in the audience probably catch the reference.

He seemed to become more and more bitter as the years went by. In 1909 Heaviside moved to Torquay where he showed increasing evidence of a persecution complex. His neighbours related stories of Heaviside as a strange and embittered hermit who replaced his furniture with granite blocks which stood about in the bare rooms. Through those rooms he wandered, growing dirtier and dirtier, and more and more unkempt; with one exception. His nails were always exquisitely manicured, and painted a glistening cherry pink.

As on old man, Heaviside spent his final years comfortably, although his mental powers diminished. “I have become as stupid as an owl,” he once bluntly stated. Heaviside died at the age of 74 on the 3rd of February 1925 and was buried with his parents in a small grave in Tourquay.

What can we learn from Oliver Heaviside?

Overcoming adversity including poverty and a hearing disability to create a complex system of calculus seems to be something we can take away. Regardless of our own problems it is clear that it is possible to overcome adversity and to learn.

Not many people listening to this podcast will be living in Dickensian conditions of poverty, but even if you are you can take heart in the fact that it is possible to overcome. But Heaviside never actually overcame poverty, he returned to it after leaving the telegraph company in order to focus on mathematics. He lived in poverty most of his life and in his later years on a small pension. For him money wasn’t his driving force. Knowledge and working in a topic he loved were more important.

While many people study in order to get ahead, or to increase their monetary value in the workforce, it doesn’t mean it is required. Some people feel ashamed to tell others that they ae studying a new language or advanced maths or whatever just for fun. They think they will be looked down upon for not having a monetary reason for learning. Learning for no other reason than you want to, is a good enough reason.

In addition, Oliver Heaviside had help from family and friends. So getting external assistance from friends and family can be helpful when you’re feeling alone or struggling with your study.

Oliver Heaviside worked as a telegraph operator, but his job didn’t define him or his life’s work. Many people confuse what they do for a living with their life. It doesn’t have to be the same thing. If you are a computer programmer, but study beekeeping as a hobby, or vicversa so be it. You should allow yourself to explore the roads you want.

Well that is all for this week. I hope you’ve found it helpful or at least informative.

If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also, please feel free to email me at rick@autodidactic.info, or leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info.

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