Scholarship @ Villanova presents Paul Pasles on Benjamin Franklin
Paul C. Pasles, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematical sciences, spoke on April 17 about his recent book, Benjamin Franklin’s Numbers: an Unsung Mathematical Odyssey (Princeton UP, 2007). Contrary to other biographers' portrayals, Dr. Pasles selected some notable examples to demonstrate Franklin’s mathematical genius.
According to Dr. Pasles, Franklin was an early demographer and perhaps the first to recognize that populations could grow at an exponential rate. Dr. Pasles also explained how Franklin demonstrated the effectiveness of smallpox inoculations, evaluated options using what today would be called utility theory, and made economic arguments against war and slavery.
Most of Dr. Pasles’ talk focused on Franklin’s hobby of doodling magic squares. Sudoku solutions are examples of magic squares, but Dr. Pasles demonstrated that Franklin’s were larger and much more complex. Although magic squares commonly add up to the same number horizontally, vertically and diagonally, Dr. Pasles explained that Franklin preferred a bent diagonal (a diagonal line that takes a 90 degree turn at the center) to the traditional diagonal.
Dr. Pasles also showed examples of Franklin’s magic squares where the sequence jumps off the right edge and continues into the left side. Franklin demonstrated an interest in magic circles as well. Dr. Pasles’ presentation included illustrations from his book showing the complex patterns in Franklin’s magic squares and circles.
According to James Srodes of The Washington Times, Benjamin Franklin’s Numbers “is an easy read for the innumerate but also provides nourishment for those skilled in the niceties of math.” Srodes notes that the book contains “some contemporary puzzles that offer the reader the chance to contest skills with Franklin himself.”
Contributed by Alfred Fry