biography

Astronomy, 1777

A number of years ago I was helping a friend clean out his father’s house when I came across, among stacks and stacks of old books, a book that was falling apart, with pages tan with age. It was obviously old, but it was hard to tell how old it was. It was missing the title page, and the book was written in German. To make matters worse, it was printed using the difficult-to-decipher Gothic characters known as “Fraktur.” Here was a puzzle!

But was it a puzzle worth spending time against? In the back of the book are a number of star charts. They are "tipped in,” meaning, they are fold-out charts that are bound with the regular pages. Twelve of the charts show the constellations in the sky for each month of the year. The illustration of each constellation is a fanciful pen-and-ink drawing of how that constellation is represented. A larger chart shows the solar system (as it was known at the time) with the position of the planets at various times of the year. A final chart shows the surface of the moon.

So, it is an astronomy book. But how old is it? The answer comes at the end of the foreword to the book: “Berlin, den 25ten Marz, 1777.” The book was published in Berlin in 1777!

After the table of contents, the first page is titled “Anleitung zur Kenntniss des gestirnten Himmels.” (Translated: “Instruction for the Knowledge of the Starry Heavens.”) This was written by the eminent German astronomer Johann Elert Bode. The 1777 printing was the third edition of this work, a work of sufficient importance to be released in several more editions into the early 1800s.

Bode was known for his reformulation and popularization of a mathematical model, originally proposed by Johann Daniel Titius, that purported to predict the distance of then-unknown planets from the sun. This law, known as the Titius-Bode Law, originally met with success but as further knowledge of the outer planets was gained, the predictions of the law broke down. Nevertheless, Bode played a part in the discovery and naming of the planet Uranus.

Scientific genealogies relate scientists to their graduate school advisors, and their advisors’ advisors, as well as their students, and their students’ students. Bode is not as well known as his “grand-student,” the eminent mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, or his “great-grand-student,” the famous mathematician Bernhard Riemann.

Book collectors would describe my copy of Bode’s Anleitung as having bumped corners, chipped boards, worn ribs on the spine, and a deteriorating binding (not to mention the missing title page). Judging by prices asked for this book by dealers of antiquarian books in Germany, a complete restoration of the book would not be worth the expense. I opted to have the book professionally rebound. It now sits on my shelf, smug in its old age, taunting me, challenging me to renew my limited understanding of German from college language classes and translate it. Alas, I suspect that disassembling the book and removing the charts so they can be framed and displayed would make the book more valuable, but I don’t think I can bring myself to do surgery on the old man.

Doctor, Cavalry Officer, Baptist Minister: Isaac Woolsey Defends His Honor

Isaac Gray Woolsey was the captain of Company C, Eighth (Dibrell’s) Tennessee Cavalry, the same company that included my great-great-grandfather, Bvt. 2nd Lt. Andrew Jackson Lacy. Captain Woolsey submitted his resignation to Col. George Dibrell in August 1863, only two weeks after Andrew Lacy had vanished, never to be heard from again.

But before Captain Woolsey’s resignation could be approved, the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry was one of many Confederate regiments engaged in the Battle of Chickamauga. On September 19, 1863, Union forces were preparing to attack Gen. Cheatham’s division, of which the Eighth Tennessee was a part. As the Eighth moved to repel the attack, Woolsey was shot, wounded in the right bicep. Once the battle ended, the wounded could not be transported by railroad cars because Rosecrans’ forces had destroyed part of the railroad. Instead, the wounded were trundled by wagon to Burnt Shed, near Ringgold, Georgia, twenty miles east of the battlefield, where they could await transportation by railroad cars.

Within a month of the battle, Woolsey had met and married Arvazenia Hutcheson, a widow from Cleveland, Tennessee, just northeast of Chattanooga. She may have been a nurse at the hospital where Woolsey was convalescing. Once he was discharged from the army, Woolsey and his new wife began a new life. By April 1864 they had settled in northern Georgia and Woolsey was ordained as a Baptist minister.

Prior to the end of the war, as well as several years after, Woolsey served church congregations in counties across the Atlanta region before resigning his pastorships to move to Texas. He and his wife returned to Georgia in the autumn of 1873. It was here, in 1874, that his past life as a Confederate officer caught up with him.

Woolsey was held in high regard by the citizens and church leaders in the region of Griffin, Georgia where he preached, but a business transaction with another minister, Rev. H. T. Dicken, unfortunately led to arbitration. Dicken, angered by the outcome, dug up some dirt on Woolsey. He discovered Woolsey had served under Scott Bledsoe during the Civil War, prior to serving under George Dibrell in the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry. Bledsoe was a young attorney who led an independent company of Confederate cavalry and later served in the regular army. Trapped behind enemy lines, for several months in 1863-1864 Bledsoe was a key figure in leading raids against Union soldiers and sympathizers. He was denounced by his enemies as a guerrilla.

There is no evidence that, while Isaac Woolsey served in Bledsoe’s independent cavalry early in the war, he was involved in guerrilla warfare. But because of his association with Bledsoe, Rev. Dicken publicly denounced Woolsey as a horse thief and a guerrilla, with no legitimate credentials as a minister. Dicken’s actions caused great strife in the local churches, and the Flint River Baptist Association, to which these churches belonged, was compelled to convene a special meeting to address the conflict between Woolsey and Dicken. Dicken had gone so far as to solicit letters from former Union guerrillas who claimed damning knowledge of Woolsey’s Confederate service.

In the end, Woolsey was exonerated, held up as a shining example of a good Christian man, while Dicken was castigated and ordered to apologize, cease, and desist. Woolsey would go on to build a reputation as a well-loved member of the community, but Dicken would continue to sow seeds of contention and eventually be expelled from the church. There is no record that the two men were ever reconciled.


Sources:

Compiled Service Record, I. G. Woolsey, Confederate, Tennessee, Eighth (Dibrell’s) Cavalry

Kate Cumming, A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, from the Battle of Shiloh to the End of the War: with Sketches of Life and Character, and Brief Notices of Current Events During That Period (Louisville, KY: John P. Morgan, 1866), 94.

Samuel Boykin, History of the Baptist Denomination in Georgia: with Biographical Compendium and Portrait Gallery of Baptist Ministers and Other Georgia Baptists (Atlanta: Jas. P. Harrison & Co., 1881), 602-603

“Rev. Dr. I.G. Woolsey's Death Causes Sorrow,” Atlanta Journal, September 16, 1902.

Proceedings and Report of a Special Committee of Investigation Appointed by the Flint River Association, Griffin, Georgia, December 2, 1874.

"Birth of a Theorem" by Cedric Villani

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is a well-known cliche'. And it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to explain to someone who has no knowledge or experience to fall back on why something as abstract and abstruse as mathematics can be said to be beautiful. It would be interesting to conduct an informal survey to test the hypothesis that those who succeed in mathematical studies are those most likely to recognize the beauty of mathematics.

Frenchman Cedric Villani won the Fields Medal (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize) in 2010 for his work, with former student and colleague Clement Mouhot, on "nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium for the Boltzmann equation."

I have no idea what this is, except I do know who Ludwig Boltzmann was, and that this work addressed a problem in mathematical physics.

But I didn't need to understand what this was about in order to follow Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure, Villani's story of his work in this area. Yes, there are plenty of equations about as comprehensible as hieroglyphics. But the reader does not need to comprehend the math in order to grasp what life as a mathematician is like, as Villani describes it. Villani describes the joy of discovery, the fear of making a mistake that could negate all his work, the struggle in wrestling a problem to the ground. As many wunderkinds do, he spends long hours absorbed in his work, trying to make sense of a small part of the universe. When he succeeds, the reader breathes a huge sigh of relief with him.

I grasped just the tiniest bit of the mathematics he describes, but it reminded me of the pleasure of seeing something unfold in mathematics. I only understood part of the esoterica presented on these pages, but it left me wanting to dig into old math books to decode and more deeply appreciate the mathematics. As a graduate student taking courses in theoretical statistics. I had glimpsed one example of mathematical beauty when I learned about the close relationship between the concept of moment in mathematics and the concept of moment in physics.

You don't have to be a mathematician to appreciate this book, but I must concede the obvious: only someone with an interest in mathematics may appreciate it.