The Euler-Diderot Encounter

In several books of mathematics history, for example, E. T. Bell's Men of Mathematics, a story is told of an encounter between Euler and Diderot in which Euler advanced a bogus algebraic proof of the existence of God in order to embarrass Diderot. For some obscure reason the story is popular, and has been repeated in several places on the Internet; for example, here and here.

However, there is apparently no evidence that the encounter ever took place. Here is a discussion by Dirk J. Struik, from his book A Concise History of Mathematics, Third Revised Edition, Dover, 1967, p. 129:

"There exists a widely quoted story about Diderot and Euler according to which Euler, in a public debate in St. Petersburg, succeeded in embarrassing the freethinking Diderot by claiming to possess an algebraic demonstration of the existence of God: "Sir, (a+b^n)/n = x; hence God exists, answer please!" This is a good example of a bad historical anecdote, since the value of an anecdote about an historical person lies in its faculty to illustrate certain aspects of his character; this particular anecdote serves to obscure both the character of Diderot and of Euler, Diderot knew his mathematics and had written on involutes and probability, and no reason exists to think that the thoughtful Euler would have behaved in the asinine way indicated. The story seems to have been made up by the English mathematician De Morgan (1806-1871). See L. G. Krakeur and R. L. Krueger, Isis, Vol. 31 (1940), pp. 431-32; also Vol. 33 (1941), pp. 219-31. It is true that there was in the eighteenth century occasional talk about the probability of an algebraic demonstration of the existence of God; Maupertuis indulged in one, see Voltaire's Diatribe, Oeuvres, Vol. 41 (1821 ed.), pp. 19, 30. See also B. Brown, Amer. Math. Monthly, Vol. 49 (1944)."

The story of Euler's supposed disgrace of Diderot is funny.  Neither Euler or Diderot or anyone else claimed to have been present in Catherine's court when this supposedly happened has mentioned this having occurred.  I have a book, "The Story of Mathematics" which seems to do a good job presenting the history of the physical language of nature, but presents the Euler/Diderot story as true.  It really seems that this was fashioned by religious mathematicians many years later.   

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Replies to This Discussion

I've heard that story many times too, good to know it's made up!
(1+a/n)^n would make somewhat more sense...

Talking of god and mathematics... I heard Leopold Kronecker once said "God made the integers; all else is the work of man."


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