From Jean Victor Poncelet to the imprisoned Tiananmen Square dissidents of 1989, is prison really a good place hone one’s mathematics skills?
By: Ringo Bones
Most prisoner of war inmates opt intricate scrimshaw carving or feeling sorry for themselves, but there are an exceptional few who used their time spent in captivity to develop and improve their existing math skills. Some have even managed to contribute indispensable facts to the still growing collective mathematical knowledge.
Captured during Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign of 1812, French mathematician Jean Victor Poncelet conquered the boredom of his prison camp by aligning a lot of disorganized non-Euclidian insights into a new branch of mathematics now known as projective geometry. Its aim is to study the properties of geometric shapes that stay unchanged when seen from a distance. An example of which is when Poncelet created a set-up during his captivity – a pyramid that contains a seemingly chaotic arrangement of colored cards. When the eye looks at this particular pyramid’s base, it sees an orderly pattern due to the angle at which “chaos” - or the chaotically arranged colored cards, is projected through space to the viewer’s eye. While some of his comrades are probably busied themselves carving intricate pieces of scrimshaw, Jean Victor Poncelet managed to create a new branch of mathematics now called projective geometry.
Professor Jackow Trachtenberg, a brilliant engineer who managed to invent a very handy set of mathematical shortcuts now known as the Trachtenberg Speed System of Mathematics during the years that he spent in captivity at Hitler’s concentration camps as a political prisoner. There’s even a Trachtenberg Mathematical Institute in Zurich, Switzerland established in honor of Professor Jackow Trachtenberg.
There also had been anecdotes during 1990 that some Chinese students who became political prisoners after their participation of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square back in 1989 have been making good use of their time spent in captivity as a political prisoner. Some have even tried to continue the unfinished work of Albert Einstein that he started since the1950s of formulating an equation that could unite the two very disparate systems of Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity. But is prison really an ideal place to hone one’s mathematics skills? Only time will tell.