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The sixteenth-century father of quantum mechanics

Gerolamo Cardano, 1501-1576

Working on a novel, I have been extending some of the research I had done previously. As my story is rooted in probabilities, one name that often pops up on my screen is Gerolamo Cardano, a sixteenth-century mathematician.

Cardano was a big gambler, but one that was versed in mathematics. While looking for ways to “improve his chances” (ahem…), he formalized probability theory — and is now acknowledged as one of the founders of the field. And if you have studied quantum mechanics a little bit, you will probably know that probabilities are fundamental to them.

But this is not where the story ends. Because Cardano also published the solutions to the cubic and quartic equations, in his 1545 book Ars Magna. And in order to solve them, he had to use something called imaginary numbers, multiples of a number noted “i” so that i²=-1. He didn’t understand fully the properties of imaginary numbers at the time, which seemed completely alien, and they remained a mathematical curiosity for several centuries…

Until it was discovered that they are incredibly useful to describe electromagnetism. And once you start studying electromagnetism, you usually end up in…

Quantum theory again.

It’s a very odd coincidence — discovering that a single man was responsible for two of the mathematical bases of quantum mechanics.

And this, a century before Newton was even born.


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