by Esther Inglis-Arkell
It’s not often that a person’s life has the three-part structure of a perfect action movie. It’s even less often that that person is a mathematician. That’s why we need to really appreciate the life of Tartaglia (Niccolò Fontana)
When Niccolo Fontana was twelve years old, his town of Brescia was invaded by the French. The town had put up a futile resistance and the French troops were making an example of the Brescians, killing everyone within the city walls. Niccolo, his widowed mother, and his sister, hid in a local cathedral. Niccolo was found. An armed soldier dragged him from his hiding place and slashed at him with a sword. The boy fell, seemingly lifeless, with a terrible wound across his face. But the French had made a mistake. When you set out to kill a budding mathematician – you best be sure you finish the job. Niccolo gradually healed, but he retained a huge facial wound, a stutter that earned him the nickname Tartaglia, and a thirst for vengeance.
His family moved to Verona, and then Venice, where Niccolo did what he could to support them all by teaching mathematics. As he taught, he also studied, learning more and more and gaining more acclaim for his knowledge. Eventually, around the age of 35, he earned a professorship at around the same time that Venice was having some trouble with its cannons. The military leaders consulted with Tartaglia to see if he could improve their artillery’s performance.
Act Two: Payback Time
Tartaglia had studied ancient laws of motion, and knew that projectiles moved in a straight line until they ran out of forward momentum and dropped to the ground. Except that didn’t explain what seemed to be happening. It didn’t explain why cannons propped up at a forty-five degree angle had the greatest range. It didn’t explain why shot kept moving after it hit the ground. It didn’t explain a lot of things.
Eventually, Niccolo realized that the path was best approximated by a curve, no matter what ancient philosophers said. He invented a “gunner’s quadrant,” a small device which showed cannoneers how to aim in order to hit what they were gunning for. He came up with tables to help the gunners figure out the elevation they needed for each range. He, in short, gave back a little of what had been dealt to him. One smash across the face, and years of hard work, made Niccolo into the inventor of ballistics.
And then the darkness came. What had he become? Why was he contributing to more war, and more suffering? In the 1550s, Tartaglia repented violence, and all his contributions to it. He ripped up his mathematical tables and destroyed all his work, vowing that he would never again lend his skills to the military.
When the French returned, they had formed an alliance with the Turks. Facing a dark force more powerful than it had ever faced before, Venice turned to Niccolo Fontana to save its citizens, and he again took up his pen to complete one. Last. Job.
Beats the hell out of the life of John Nash (A Beautiful Mind), doesn’t it?