Euler and the Empress of Russia – March 16, 2021 – Marcelo Viana

Tsar Pedro 3rd had the name but none of the characteristics of his impressive grandfather Pedro 1st, the great. Unpopular due to his pro-Germanic ideas, he was deposed on June 9, 1762 by troops who were loyal to his charismatic wife, the German Princess Sofia von Anhalt-Zerbst, and who took the name Catarina when they converted to the Russian Orthodox Church.

She died shortly afterwards under suspicious conditions, and Catarina was soon crowned. She began a reign of more than three decades that made her the most powerful woman of all time and the only one to be dubbed “the great”. One of his priorities was to restore the imperial capital to the cultural brilliance that it has had since the reign of Pedro 1º.

Leonhard Euler’s request to return to Russia was exorbitant: an annual salary of 3,000 rubles, a pension for his wife Katharina and the promise of important court positions for his children. Catherine accepted without hesitation, and in 1766 Euler returned to St. Petersburg for the last time. He is buried in the Alexandre Newski Monastery in a marble mausoleum that I was allowed to visit in 1991 when I was attending the inauguration of the Euler Institute of the (still) Soviet Academy of Sciences.

This last phase of his life was marked by several tragedies. Five years after he went blind, his home was destroyed in a fire in 1771 that nearly killed him. Two years later he lost his 40-year-old wife. Eight of the couple’s 13 children did not reach adulthood.

But in 1776 he married his half-sister-in-law Salome, and that relationship lasted until his death.

Catherine the Great was a cultured and refined woman who corresponded with the greatest intellectuals of her time and discussed personally with the thinkers she met at her court. Euler was no exception: he had regular meetings with the sovereign to discuss mathematics and other sciences.

Euler continued to work until he died without personal drama or blindness affecting his incredible productivity. His latest work on balloons was written in chalk on the blackboard and published posthumously.

On September 18, 1783, after a family dinner, he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage while talking to a colleague about the recent discovery of Uranus. A few hours later, “he stopped calculating and living,” as Condorcet declared in his laudatory speech at the French Academy of Sciences.

His greatest monument is The Euler Archive website, an archive of more than 850 works that he wrote and much more information about his life and work.

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