Influential pws: Niccolò Tartaglia

Written by Jurjen

There are several ways to make an impact on society. The Italian Niccolò Fontana (1500- 1557) did it by being a mathematician and engineer. Not everybody knows him as Niccolò Fontana. Most people know him by the name Niccolò Tartaglia, which means ‘Niccolò the Stammerer’. We will explain later why he got this name. Let’s first have a look at why he is famous.

Impact on science

Most of us have learned in school how to solve quadratic equations (ax^2 +bx = c). This was already known in Tartaglia’s life. However, Tartaglia wanted to take it to the next level and included third powers (x^3) to the equation and wanted to have a general solution for these cubic equations as well. 

Another mathematician, Antonio Fior, was also working on this same problem. His teacher, Del Ferro, shared the secret of solving one type of cubic equation with Fior. To decide who was the main expert in solving cubic equations, Tartaglia and Fior started a Mathematics battle. Here they challenged each other with a number of mathematical problems that they both had to solve. Fior didn’t know that Tartaglia had found a general way to solve all cubic equations. So, Tartaglia won the battle and gained more respect in the scientific society as the expert on cubic equations. 

Unfortunately, this story about the cubic equations has not a happy end because another scientist, Girolamo Cardano, published Tartaglia’s solution in his book without consulting Tartaglia. He did this after meeting with Tartaglia, where Tartaglia told him his solution in trust. Cardano had promised not to share it because Tartaglia wanted to publish his solution by himself, so that he could earn money with it. Even though Cardano mentioned Tartaglia’s name with the solution, they ended up being in a fight about it and Tartaglia remained poor.

Other contributions

Besides cubic equations, Tartaglia was also busy with improving Aristotle’s work on ballistics (simply said: the mathematics to describe how a projectile, like a cannonball, flies through the sky). You can call Tartaglia the founding father of modern ballistics. He also translated an old mathematical work from Euclides, The Elements, to Italian. He contributed also in other ways to science, but let’s go now to his stuttering life.

Tartaglia’s stuttering life

Tartaglia’s place of birth, Brescia.

Despite his impact on science and engineering, he was also known as somebody with a stutter. The story goes that he was severely wounded when he was 12, after a French army attacked his home city, Brescia, in Italy. The soldiers left him for death, but surprisingly he survived because his mother literally licked his wounds. He later wrote:

“In the cathedral, in front of my mother, I was given five murderous wounds, three on my head (each of them exposing my brain) and two on my face. Today I would look like a monster if I did not hide the injuries behind my beard. One of the wounds cut my mouth and my teeth, breaking my jaw and palate in half. This stopped me from talking except in my throat the way magpies do.”

His speech impediment started after this attack. 

“Tartaglia received five serious head wounds, which left him with his stutter.” [John Stillwell]

This is one of the quotes where it is assumed that his stutter started because of the physical-neurological damage he had due to the beating, but it might also be that event that triggered late developmental stuttering. We’ll never know for sure. He was not the only one with physical and mental damage after the attack on Brescia. So, he wasn’t alone in being ‘different’ and that could also be the reason that he didn’t hold back and developed his talents and became known as a great self-promoter. He always showed off his talents and skills, whenever he could, and liked to step in the spotlight. 

Let Tartaglia be an inspiration for all of us to focus on your talents, instead of how you are different to others.

Sources

  1. “Niccolo Tartaglia.” Famous Scientists. famousscientists.org. 31 Jul. 2016. Web. 24/05/2020 <www.famousscientists.org/niccolo-tartaglia/>.
  1. “Niccolo Tartaglia.” Mathshistory. September 2005. Web. 24/05/2020

<http://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Tartaglia.html>.

  1. John Stillwell (2010). “Biographical Notes: Tartaglia, Cardano, and Viete.” Mathematics and History. Springer, Third Edition

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