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Willful Ignorance: The Mismeasure of Uncertainty by Herbert Weisberg

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CHAPTER 5 A MATHEMATICIAN OF BASEL

It is a frigid morning in early December of 1687 in Basel, Switzerland.1 A few snowflakes are visible through the small window in the dining room of the Bernoulli house. Jacob stokes the fire before settling down to a light breakfast. Judith, his wife of 3 years, nurses their first child, Nicholas, born just a few months ago. As usual, Jacob is lost in thought; there is much on his mind these days.

It is less than a year since he finally garnered the prize he had coveted for so long, the professorship in mathematics at Basel University. Quite an accomplishment, he muses, for a self-taught mathematician with degrees in theology and philosophy. He has no regrets about refusing to enter his father's lucrative trade in medicinal herbs or perhaps becoming a respectable clergyman. Jacob has insisted on following his true calling, mathematics. He has already become one of the leaders in the new infinitesimal calculus devised by Gottfried Leibniz and has published several articles related to it.

His father, after whom young Nicholas was named, cannot understand the value of abstruse mathematics, and Jacob's unconventional career choice has led to much dissension. The vigorous new grandson bearing his name has certainly helped to mollify his father somewhat and ease the tension between the two strong-willed men. Jacob feels more than ever that his mission is to demonstrate the practical value as well as the beauty of mathematical analysis. This sense ...

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