Euler and the King of Prussia – 03/10/2021 – Marcelo Viana

Euler was concerned about the instability of his position in St. Petersburg and in 1741 accepted an invitation from King Frederick the Great (1712-1786) to head the mathematical department of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and went to Berlin. The next two decades were marked by very important discoveries and a difficult relationship with the king.

One of Euler’s tasks was to educate Princess Friederike Charlotte, the king’s niece. He wrote him more than 200 letters on mathematics and physics, which were later collected and published in book form. The “Letters from Euler to a German Princess” demonstrate his remarkable ability to communicate science in accessible language and have become popular in Europe and the United States.

Frederick, one of the most brilliant monarchs of the Enlightenment, was cultured, refined, tireless, an excellent administrator, and one of the greatest generals of his time. His conquests expanded the kingdom and made Prussia one of the most important world powers. In addition, he brought together many of the best minds from science, art and culture of his time in Berlin.

The French philosopher, historian and writer Voltaire had a respected place in Frederick’s court, who valued the eloquence and sharpness of the French. Euler was the opposite: simple, religious, misinformed outside of mathematics, never questioning the rules and discussing topics he knew poorly, which made him deride.

The king was particularly disappointed with the mathematician’s lack of practical skills. “I wanted a well and asked Euler to calculate the power of the wheels that would be needed to lift the water to the reservoir. The device was geometrically designed and couldn’t lift a single sip of water. Washstands! Washbasin geometry!”

In his correspondence, he referred to Euler as “the Cyclops”, a cruel joke with the blindness of his right eye that still occurred in Russia. After a cataract in his left eye, the mathematician was completely blind in 1766 at the age of 59. This didn’t affect his productivity: in 1775 he published a math article weekly, an impressive average!

By 1760, when the Seven Years’ War devastated Prussia and other parts of Europe, the situation in Russia had improved. Power had been taken over by an ambitious German princess who was about to become Empress Catherine the Great. At her invitation, Euler decided to return to St. Petersburg. It was his last step.

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