Italian Masters: Volta Jump-Starts Electrical EngineeringFigure 1: Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576)
Welcome back to our series on Italian Masters of math and science. Last week I wrote about Galileo’s extensive accomplishments both in the field of astronomy and beyond. This week, I’ll take a look at another renaissance polymath who dabbled in astronomy, along with his work in mathematics, medicine, biology, chemistry, philosophy, and gambling (yes, seriously): Girolamo Cardano. Cardano is a less well-known figure than Galileo or some of the other scientists I’ve written about who have famous equations or units of measurement named after them, like Volta or Torricelli. He is regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians of his age, however, and made a great many contributions to science, mathematics and mechanical engineering, despite his reputation as a disrespectful, gambling misanthrope.
Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576)
Born in 1501 in Pavia, Cardano was the illegitimate son of a Milanese lawyer and mathematician. Although his father hoped Cardano would follow in his footsteps and study law, he was too intrigued by the sciences, and pursued a path in academics, starting with a degree in medicine in 1526. He lived a hard life, as the circumstances of his birth, his perpetual gambling habits, and his irascible temperament always stood in his way. It took him 14 years to gain admission as a professor at the College of Physicians in Milan, due to being a bastard in more ways than one: besides his illegitimate birth, he also penned scathing critiques of the physicians at the College as vain and talentless hacks. Ultimately, he was awarded a professorship at a series of universities throughout his life, though his troubles never ceased. Of his three children, his older son was executed in 1560 for poisoning his wife and his younger son was banished and disowned in 1569 for gambling away Cardano’s money and burglarizing his house to pay overdue debts. Not long after in 1570, Cardano found himself under arrest by the Catholic Church on charges of heresy. He was only imprisoned for a few months, but after his release he was nonetheless forbidden from holding a university post or publishing any work for the rest of his life. He finally passed away in 1576, and many believe he intentionally committed suicide in order to fulfil a horoscope he had cast for his own life years earlier.
Mathematics and Probability
Cardano spent a great deal of time tackling the mathematical unknowns of his time. His biggest impacts on the field of mathematics arose from his work on algebra and probability. Cardano derived solutions for a number of significant problems in algebra, including methods for determining the roots of cubic and quartic equations and expanding binomial equations. His solutions are all the more impressive considering that European mathematicians were not yet acknowledging that negative numbers could exist and had not yet developed a theory for complex numbers. His methods may seem needlessly complex by today’s standards, considering how broad our mathematical toolbox is, but the fact that his solutions worked despite such handicaps is testament to his brilliance.
Figure 2: Six-sided dice (6d6)