29 Great Catholic Mathematicians You Should Know

“It seems to me almost incredible,” said Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, “that an invention of the human mind and the structure of the universe coincide. Mathematics, which we invented, really gives us access to the nature of the universe and makes it possible for us to use it.”

Anonymous, “God the Geometer,” ca. 1220
Anonymous, “God the Geometer,” ca. 1220 (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Do your eyes glaze over when your kids ask for help on their math homework? There are a lot of Catholics you might want to thank for that before you tear your hair out. In this light, I’ve decided to highlight the accomplishments of several important clerics and lay Catholic mathematicians.

1. Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine (1290-1349). English Archbishop, physicist and mathematician who created the Law of Falling Bodies which was a precursor to the Theory of Gravity.

2. Bishop Johannes Müller von Königsberg (1436-1476). German Bishop, astronomer and mathematician known as the “Father of Modern Astronomy.” He was among the first to use symbolic algebra.

3. Blessed Ramon Llull (c. 1232-1315). Catalan Franciscan tertiary and beatus who invented the first analog computer. He’s known as the “Father of Computer Science.”

4. Blessed Francesco Faà di Bruno (1825-1888). Italian priest, advocate of the poor, musician, mathematician and beatus. The Faà di Bruno formula is named for him though he didn’t create it.

5. Bishop Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175-1253). English bishop who developed the field of mathematical physics. He also discovered the first wave theory of light. He urged his fellow scientists to use controlled experiments which ultimately inspired the Franciscan friar and scientist Roger Bacon to develop the modern scientific method.

6. Blessed Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464). German Cardinal and beatus who developed the concept of relativity and conducted the first formal modern experiment in the history of biology.

7. Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576). Italian mathematician, physician and astronomer who was the first to discuss negative numbers.

8. Ányos Jedlik (1800-1895). Hungarian priest. He’s known as the “Father of the Dynamo and Electric Motor.”

9. Roger Bacon (1214-1294). English Franciscan friar known as the “Father of the Scientific Method.” Though Aristotle recommended observation, he wasn’t truly methodical and systematic. Bacon, on the other hand, was the world’s first true scientific empiricist.

10. Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri (1667-1733). Italian Jesuit mathematician was the first modern scholar to explore non-Euclidean geometry ― the study of 3D shapes. 

11. Giuseppe Piazzi (1746-1826). Italian priest, astronomer and mathematician who discovered and named the dwarf planet Ceres ― the largest asteroid in the Solar System.

12. Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848). Bohemian priest and mathematician who was the first scholar to give an analytical proof of algebra.

13. François d’Aguilon (1546-1617). Belgian Jesuit who laid the foundation for the mathematical subfield known as projective geometry. He created the term stereographic.

14. Johannes Widmann (1460-1498). German mathematician who created the plus sign (+) and minus sign (-). This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Every Christian child has already noticed the stark similarity between the plus sign and a Greek cross.

15. Leonardo Pisano Bigollo (1170-1250). Italian mathematician who advocated the use of Arabic numerals that we currently use in mathematics. He also discovered the “Fibonacci Sequence.” (i.e., 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc.) It’s a sequence of numbers in which each number in the sequence is equal to the sum of two numbers before it. This odd pattern has led to great discoveries in natural design such as that found in seashell spirals and in sunflower seeds. It also serves many purposes in modern computing.

16. Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia (1500-1557). Italian mathematician and engineer who came up with the formula to solve cubic equations. He also was the first to apply mathematics to calculating projectiles. He is known as the “Father of Ballistics.”

17. Lodovico Ferrari (c. 1522-1565). Italian mathematician who created the formula to solve quartic equations.

18. René Descartes (1596-1650). French mathematician who invented the Cartesian coordinate system and analytical geometry.

19. Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665). French mathematician who laid the foundations of infinitesimal calculus. He’s most famous for “Fermat’s Last Theorem.” He proposed in a note scribbled in the margin of his copy of Diophantus’ Arithmetica. In the note, Fermat claimed to have discovered a proof that the Diophantine equation x^n+y^n=z^n has no integer solutions for n>2 and x,y,z!=0.

20. Evangelista Torricelli (1608-1647). Italian physicist and mathematician who invented the barometer and after whom the Torr unit ― used to measure pressure ― is named.

21. Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (1608-1676). Italian physicist and mathematician. He is known as the “Father of Biomechanics.”

22. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). French mathematician and physicist who laid the foundation for probability theory. He also invented an early calculator/computer and made important theories and experiments regarding pressure and vacuums. The unit pascal is named after him.

He also created Pascal’s Wager ― the idea that belief in God leads to great benefits and virtue and atheism will backfire on you so it’s probably better to believe in God than reject him. The wager uses the following logic (taken from Pascal Pensées, part III, §233):

  • God is, or God is not. Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives
  • A Game is being played ... where heads or tails will turn up
  • You must wager (it is not optional)
  • Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing
  • Wager, then, without hesitation that he is. … There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
  • But some cannot believe. They should then ‘at least learn your inability to believe...’ and ‘endeavour then to convince’ themselves.

This is the Catholic mathematician’s way of saying that if God exists, the Believer has a chance at infinite gain (i.e., Heaven) and not believing in God would result in infinite loss (i.e., Hell). However, if God doesn’t exist, then disbelief in him will cause no loss but belief in God would only bring about greater virtues in the Believer. Choose wisely.

23. Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625-1712). Italo-French mathematician and astronomer who discovered Saturn’s first four moons. For more on the Cassini space research mission, follow this link.

24. Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799). Italian mathematician who wrote the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus.

25. Louis Nicolas Vauquelin (1763-1829). French chemist who discovered the elements beryllium and chromium. He also discovered the first amino acid ― asparagine.

26. Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774-1862). French physicist, astronomer and mathematician who came to understand the nature of the polarization of light, magnetism and electricity. He lends his name to the biot unit which measures electric currents.

27. Augustin-Louis Cauchy (1789-1857). French mathematician who inspired more mathematical concepts and theorems than any other mathematician. He and Verrier discovered Neptune.

28. Urbain Le Verrier (1811-1877). French astronomer and mathematician who discovered the planet Neptune with his colleague Cauchy.

29. François Viète (1540-1603). French mathematician known as the “Father of Modern Algebra.”

For those interested in learning about the great contributions Catholics have made to the sciences and, indeed, to the laying of the foundations of Western science and civilization, I direct you to these two articles: “A List of 244 Priest-Scientists (From Acosta to Zupi)” and “A Short List of Lay Catholic Scientists.”