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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Charles Pierce: Mathematician, All-Around Genius and Ladies Man

Charles Sanders Pierce is one of those intellectual historical figures that strikes the reader like the proverbial ton of bricks.  The son of Benjamin Pierce, Charles had the doors to the academic life wide open by virtue of his pedigree, but it was his precocious and powerful genius that took him all the way to the top and, from there, all the way down to the bottom.  One is reminded (in a good way) of Peter Shaffer's treatment of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the play (later movie by Milos Forman) "Amadeus."  Charles Pierce was a member of "The Metaphysical Club," a book by Louis Menand that I have been re-reading so slowly I might set the record for slow reading a 440 page book.  At any rate, Pierce was probably one of the most arrogant and loud-spoken of all of the scholars Menand covers in the volume.  He was abrasive in presence and overpowering in conversation.  Not to be one to allow his ideas share the stage with his colleagues and peers, Charles Pierce wrote letters to university presidents praising himself as the "next big thing," or simply the "big thing" (a designer of systems) in an age when modesty and professional bearing were still very much protocol.  He made enemies here, allies and opponents there--in short, Pierce was a man for the ages.
Pierce's glory as a scholar came from his immense intellect and his ability to produce some of the most challenging theories about the nature of all his fields of endeavors.  For example, he (and his father) were engaged in the famous Howland case, in which a signature on a last will and testament to decide the fate of Issac Howland's estate became a national sensation.  The case centered around the contention that one of the signatures was traced/fake and therefore the document was invalid.  The Pierces engaged in calculating the probability of said signature appearing in the same place on the paper, particularly the margin distance.  The Pierce calculation for this probability proved to be ineffective in the decision of the case because of the "extravagance" of its scholarly "pretentiousness" (or at least that is the general consensus).  The calculation, as Menand reports it in the book goes as follows: "The change that Sylvia Ann Howland could have produced two signatures in which all thirty down-strokes coincided was... one in 5^30, 'or, more exactly it is once in two thousand six hundred and sixty-six millions of millions of millions of times, or 2,666,000,000,000,000,000,000."  The case was lost, and while Pierce's contribution seemed to have been concrete enough, the general consensus was that the abstraction of such calculation, understood by perhaps a handful of mathematicians in the world, was not the type of evidence conducive to resting a verdict on.  

Charles Pierce's personality was welcomed in some circles and, without a doubt, contemplated with envious eyes in others.  He had his champions and William James proved to be one of them writing letters of recommendations for Pierce, as Pierce desperately looked for an academic position.  One such position was the inaugural chair for the Philosophy Department at Johns Hopkins University.  The president of the university, one Daniel Coit Gilman, was one of those people in administrative positions of power who carry grudges and remembers favors and double-crossings and is quick to take his revenge when the opportunity appeared.  Pierce pestered Gilman with letters looking for an appointment but a storm was brewing on the horizon regarding Pierce's personal life and Gilman was not about to turn a blind eye to such transgressions.  In short, Pierce was denied a position at Johns Hopkins because of marital problems, as Charles Pierce had left his wife for a much younger woman in a case that was socially scandalous as it was salaciously enjoyed by people like Gilman.

Charles Pierce never recuperated his status as America's preeminent mathematician.  As a matter of fact, the true nature of his genius was his ability to transcend his field into physics, philosophy and even the young field at the time of Natural Psychology.  He left hundreds of unfinished manuscripts for articles, books and systems of thought and one is left to wonder what would have become of American scholarship if Charles Pierce had not been derailed by his own awesome intellect and personal weaknesses.  

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