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Pass the Science

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 - 07:00 PM

Richard Holmes went to Cambridge University intending to study the lives of poets. Until a dueling mathematician, and a dinner conversation composed entirely of gestures, changed his mind.

In this short, Robert asks Richard how he came to write The Age of Wonder, a rollicking book full of adventure and discovery about the rise of modern science in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Richard tells us the poignant story of mathematician Évariste Galois--and how dropping his name at the High Table at Cambridge University led to a wordless demonstration of cubic equations by a cutlery-wielding Russian mathematician (who spoke no English). In the end, Richard was so taken with the lengths scientists will go to in order to explain their work (even when they fail), that he decided to give it a go himself. We get that.


Richard Holmes


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Comments [26]

Jason from jacksonville, florida

As stated by an earlier listener, it is quintic polynomials and not cubic. Both cubic and quartic have general solutions: and

I'm a mathematician and I used to work in chemistry if you need someone to vet your science or math I'm happy to volunteer. Additionally, in another podcast concerning symmetry, you pronounce chiral as having a "Ch"; it is pronounced Ky-ral (rhymes with viral). I love your show and I would gladly proof anything on a volunteer basis.

Oct. 09 2014 07:52 PM
megan from basel

This comment is a little late, maybe, but the "Nulla in Mundo Pax Sincera" is not actually by David Hirschfelder, though he did arrange that version. The original is a motet by Vivaldi.

Jul. 30 2011 02:24 PM
jiolkl from kjjilk

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Jul. 25 2011 02:32 AM

Hey Billy ...

It's "Nulla in Mundo Pax Sincera" by David Hirschfelder.


Apr. 19 2011 10:40 AM
Billy from Brooklyn

Anyone know what that strings + soprano, aria-type piece of music was that starts at the 1:20 mark?

Apr. 19 2011 10:08 AM
Sean Michael Robinson

Just wanted to throw this in- what's been debunked is NOT that Galois spent his last night on earth wrapping up his duties to his political causes and his maths- he did. What's fanciful is the previously-passed around notion that he worked on or first formulated some of those concepts that night. He didn't- he made an effort to transcribe and elucidate his thoughts and his long process of work on paper. A bid for some longevity to the tragic impermanence of one's ideas. It's a remarkable story, told fairly accurately here (despite the poor Group Theory explanation).

Apr. 06 2011 11:01 AM

What is the music at 8:50? My guess is the Dale Warland Singers. Check out the album, "Cathedral Classics"

Apr. 04 2011 01:45 PM
Billy Towers from Diamond Bar, CA

I was wondering what the music was as well. Thankfully, "there's an app for that."

"Walk-A-Way" by Dave Holland Quintet
- off the album Seeds of Time

Apr. 01 2011 05:20 PM

Herbert Howells' Requiem! Jad, you pick some of my favorite music! Which recording was that? You only used two very brief, low-level snippets, but enought to get the goose bumps going!

Mar. 31 2011 06:37 AM
Erinsgrand from Louisville, Ky.

I think that today's story about the alphamale baboons came to an incorrect conclusion because it was based on the wrong premise. I do believe that it was the free, plentiful source of food that tamed the beasts. But after they all died from the tainted meat I believe that it was still the supply of good, free food that calmed the next alphamale to come along, not the grooming and fraternizing with the females. I don't believe that picking fleas off an alphamales back alone would calm the wild beast. But I can definitely see the country club atmosphere develop when they don't have to search and fight for the same old meal every day.

Mar. 26 2011 05:04 PM

I think a lot of the commenters are missing the point of the show. This story was not about group theory, it was about the way mathematics does not require language to communicate ideas. Math is itself a kind of universal language. It also is just a great story. Who cares if the story of Galois last night is apocryphal? True history is about telling meaningful stories, not about accurately representing details. Mythology is truth.

Mar. 25 2011 03:33 PM

Hi, so yeah I also noticed the error in this podcast. 5th order polynomials are called quintic and they are in general unsolvable algebraically. One of the achievements of galois and his group theory was proving than any polynomials past 4th order were generally unsolvable. Wikipedia is full of info about this, check it outt.

Mar. 24 2011 11:32 PM

I write about transculturalism on my blog ( and this episode is a great example of transcending cultural/language barriers to make a meaningful connection with a fellow human being. I absolutely loved this episode!

Mar. 24 2011 10:06 PM
Alex from The Big Apple

Thank you Steve Kass for clearing up the technical side of it... Although most of us are "mathematically impaired" it's always great to try to understand things in the correct perspective.
As far as the duel story goes... Myth or otherwise, it is an elegant way to illustrate a point the author makes about Galois' brilliance.
Anyway, that's my two cents... Radiolab: Keep up the good work!

Mar. 24 2011 09:49 PM
Tony Bruguier

I believe the polynomials of order 1, 2, 3, and 4 are solvable, but 5 and above may or may not be solvable.

Your guest seems to have said that 3 and above are not solvable.

Mar. 24 2011 05:00 PM
Kadija from New York

Good Beat

was a good one

the Libya
and Federal Courts
Im hanging up the phone with a Forced Connection

"I told you' I'll do it"

That means nothing' though

good for you

good for me
In the meantime SPIDEY
and all that
Marvel Comics

Community Court Service

Mar. 24 2011 01:38 PM

As steve said, the result proved by galois was for polynomials of degree five and higher, not degree three. The whole box analogy was kind of bogus as well, I am afraid to see what he printed in the book. All in all he made a very rigorous and beautiful idea sound like some mystery that cannot be thought of in concrete terms.

Mar. 24 2011 12:19 PM
Stephen Potter

A good story! I've just finished reading "Fermat's Last Theorem" by Simon Singh - a great book - which is about the cubic equation mentioned in the talk. Galois is, of course featured in the book and the girl's name is Stephanie-Felicie Poterine de Mortel: unfortunately she was engaged to Pescheux d'Herbinville, who was one of the finest shots in France, and that was the end of Evariste!

Mar. 24 2011 11:27 AM

I would love to see that Russian Mathematician's cutlery-based demonstration of group theory. If you can make that happen, I will be eternally grateful

(eternally = from now until you do something better)

Mar. 24 2011 10:51 AM

The story told by the guest is a myth. Galois did die in a duel, but the mythologizing of his last night has long been debunked.

Mar. 24 2011 10:35 AM
Sarah Laine from Toronto

Thank you so much I hope you guys can keep going with this, I heard something about funding or NPR being kaput.
You mixed all my loves into one, oh you brilliant moronic evils, you! Now I have to go write.... ermph

Mar. 23 2011 05:26 PM
Billgno from Denver

I been listening to Radio Lab via podcasts for some time now. I listen as I walk. I'm retired and walk every day for a couple of hours. I usually wait till I have several shows backlogged and them listen to them all at once.

Lately, I have been concerned about your efforts at making the show sticky. I understand this as I have been in training for many years (management, leadership, etc.) and making the message sticky was critical to my success as a trainer. Using stories, games, music and other devices to ensure content retention is important.

My issue is that you are going too far and doing too much cutesy stuff. Your producers have gone over the edge and making the shows more about the effects than the subject. Frankly, today I stopped listening in mid-show because of the distractions your producers must think make the show sticky or enjoyable.

Radio (and podcasts) are about talking and about the information. I will keep trying to listen, but with the current level of over-production, I'm sure it'll not be very often.

Thanks for trying.

Mar. 23 2011 01:51 PM
ML from Princeton, NJ

I'd love to have the information on the music used on this podcast (and more generally, all RadioLab podcasts)--I really enjoy how music and speaking are woven together to perfectly.

Mar. 23 2011 12:31 PM
Kelly from Detroit, MI

As a person with passionate interest in both science and literature, this story really enchanted me. I immediately walked into the library where I work and reserved a copy of Holmes' book.

Mar. 23 2011 11:11 AM
janet spiegel from South Florida

A wonderful story. In my mind's eye I see Roberto Benigni as the Russian mathematician...

Mar. 23 2011 12:07 AM
Steve Kass from Madison, New Jersey

A rare off day for Radiolab. Yes, scientists will go to great lengths “in order to explain their work (even when they fail).” And, apparently, non-scientists (Holmes) will also go to some lengths trying to explain someone else’s work (even when they fail).

That this podcast wasn’t ostensibly about mathematics doesn’t excuse leaving listeners with Holmes’s failed attempt to explain some of Galois’s contributions to group theory and the theory of equations. Group theory is about much more than equations, and though Galois’s last letter was about group theory, Galois didn’t invent the subject. As for what Holmes tries to explain as being group theory? Well, it’s not clear there was a “thing” there, and Holmes seems to jumble this and that bit of mathematics with some not-so-well fitting analogies to end up getting little of anything right.

For the record, the mathematics associated with Galois is fascinating, and some of its general threads can be explained in a few minutes’ time. Galois helped lay the mathematical foundation for what we know today (basically everything, thanks to him) about solving quintic and higher-degree equations (quintics, with an x-to-the-fifth — not cubic, as Holmes and the podcast summary state). They can’t be solved in general in ways like quadratics (via the well-known quadratic formula), cubics (via Cardano’s formula) and quartics can, and Galois theory explains why.

Mar. 22 2011 09:31 PM

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