Abraham de Moivre

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Abraham de Moivre


French-English Mathematician

Because of problems related to nationality and religion, Abraham de Moivre never had an opportunity to teach mathematics at a university. Nonetheless, he enjoyed fruitful interactions with Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and others and later published texts in which he advanced the understanding of probability theory and other areas of mathematics.

Born in Vitry-le-François, France, on May 26, 1667, de Moivre (he apparently adopted the aristocratic "de" after moving to England) was the son of a surgeon. His family belonged to the Huguenot sect, a Protestant group protected since 1598 by the Edict of Nantes, which ensured their limited freedom within the Catholic nation. Thus, de Moivre was educated in both Catholic and Protestant schools before going to Paris, where he studied under the renowned teacher Jacques Ozanam.

When de Moivre was in his 20s, however, the Crown revoked the Edict of Nantes, changing the course of his career. After a short imprisonment, he fled to England, where he would spend the remainder of his life.

Though his foreign ancestry made it difficult for him to obtain employment through most recognized channels, de Moivre made a good living by providing mathematical advice to gamblers and underwriters, who visited him at Slaughter's Coffee House on Fleet Street in London. Newton's support further ensured a steady stream of tutorial students. In 1695 another influential friend, Edmond Halley (1656-1742), presented a paper by de Moivre before the Royal Society, which accepted him for membership two years later. During the next half-century, de Moivre would have some 15 papers published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

As a mathematician, de Moivre concerned himself with areas ranging from probability theory to calculus. Among his contributions to mathematics was de Moivre's theorem, which helped establish the close connection between the algebra and geometry of complex numbers. His writings on probability, translated into English as Doctrine of Chances (1718), would prove highly popular (de Moivre wrote in an easy, understandable style geared toward nonmathematicians) and highly influential. The book, in which he improved on ideas presented earlier by Jakob Bernoulli (1654-1705) and Christiann Huygens (1629-1695), is often referred to as the first modern probability textbook.

The purpose of de Moivre's work was one of pressing concern in the Enlightenment, as he and other men of faith attempted to establish a rational basis for a belief in God. Thus, he hoped to use mathematics to prove the so-called "Argument from Design," which maintains that the evidence of order in the universe proves the existence of God.

In 1735 de Moivre was honored with membership in the Berlin Academy and, almost two decades later, by something much more surprising: membership in the Paris Académie in the country that had once expelled him. By then, de Moivre was in his last days and he died in London on November 27, 1754.


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Abraham de Moivre

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