Computational Crystallography Toolbox

Historical Note

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Throughout history, the solution of polynomial equations has been a challenging problem. The Babylonians knew how to solve the equation ax^2+bx+c=0. Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) devised methods of solving cubic equations through the use of geometric constructions and conic sections. The algebraic solution of the general cubic equation ax^3+bx^2+cx+d=0 was not discovered until the sixteenth century. An Italian mathematician, Luca Pacioli, wrote in Summa de Arithmetica that the solution of the cubic was impossible. This was taken as a challenge by the rest of the mathematical community.

Scipione del Ferro (1465-1526), of the University of Bologna, solved the "depressed cubic,"


He kept his solution an absolute secret. This may seem surprising today, when mathematicians are usually very eager to publish their results, but in the days of the Italian Renaissance secrecy was customary. Academic appointments were not easy to secure and dependent on the ability to prevail in public contests. Such challenges could be issued at any time. Consequently, any major new discovery was a valuable weapon in such a contest. If an opponent presented a list of problems to be solved, del Ferro could in turn present a list of depressed cubics. He kept the secret of his discovery throughout his life, passing it on only on his deathbed to his student Antonio Fior (ca. 1506-?).

Although Fior was not equal of his teacher, he immediately issued a challenge to Niccolo Fontana (1499-1557). Fontana was known as Tartaglia (the Stammerer). As a youth he had suffered a blow from the sword of a French soldier during an attack on his village. He survived the savage wound, but his speech was permanently impaired. Tartaglia sent Fior a list of 30 various mathematical problems; Fior countered by sending Tartaglia a list of 30 depressed cubics. Tartaglia would either solve all 30 of the problems or absolutely fail. After much effort Tartaglia finally succeeded in solving the depressed cubic and defeated Fior, who faded into obscurity.

At this point another mathematician, Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576), entered the story. Cardano wrote to Tartaglia, begging him for the solution to the depressed cubic. Tartaglia refused several of his requests, then finally revealed the solution to Cardano after the latter swore an oath not to publish the secret or to pass it on to anyone else. Using the knowledge that he had obtained from Tartaglia, Cardano eventually solved the general cubic


Cardano shared the secret with his student, Ludovico Ferrari (1522-1565), who solved the general quartic equation,


In 1543, Cardano and Ferrari examined del Ferro's papers and discovered that he had also solved the depressed cubic. Cardano felt that this relieved him of his obligation to Tartaglia, so he proceeded to publish the solutions in Ars Magna (1545), in which he gave credit to del Ferro for solving the special case of the cubic. This resulted in a bitter dispute between Cardano and Tartaglia, who published the story of the oath a year later.