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According to Wikipedia, an autobiography is an account of the life of a person, written by that person sometimes with a collaborator.

An autobiography offers the author the ability to recreate history. From this point of view, to some extent, a mathematician autobiography tell us much about the history of mathematics itself.

The question is: What are some examples of *AUTO*biography books of mathematicians ?


Interesting fact: Is there no AUTObiography of mathematicians written in the 19th century?

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"The Map of My Life" By G. Shimura "I want to be a Mathematician" by P. Halmos "The Apprenticeship of a Mathematician" by A. Weil – Mahdi Majidi-Zolbanin Jul 19 '12 at 0:12
This is easy enough to Google, so I don't see what purpose this question serves. – Steven Landsburg Jul 19 '12 at 0:54
I fear this question is misguided. Mathematicians are in general not good writers, so they don't write books one would want to read. Their autobiographies tend to be of the navel gazing variety and not touch upon mathematics much or at all; see Grothendieck and Weil. Halmos's book is an exception. Biographies, written by people who know how to, tend to be better; see Nash and Zariski. – Gunnar Þór Magnússon Jul 19 '12 at 4:39
Re 19th century autobiographies: I put a comment under John Stillwell's answer (who mentions Eisenstein's aoutobiography) about some writings by Sofya Kovalevskaya. – Margaret Friedland Jul 19 '12 at 18:16

21 Answers 21

Here are a few:

Girolamo Cardano: The Book of My Life. (trans. by Jean Stoner. New York: New York Review of Books, 2002)

Norbert Wiener's two volumes

Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth. (MIT Press 1953)


I am a Mathematician. (Gollancz 1956)

Richard Bellman: Eye of the Hurricane (World Scientific 1985)

Laurent Schwartz: A Mathematician Grappling with His Century (Birkhäuser 2001)

Addition. I don't know of any full length autobiography by a 19th century mathematician, but Eisenstein wrote a short autobiography: "Eine Autobiographie von Gotthold Eisenstein." In Eisenstein, G. Mathematische Werke, Band II. New York: Chelsea, pp. 879-904. 1975.

Further addition. There is an English translation of Eisenstein's autobiography here.

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In French: Laurent Schwartz, Un mathématicien aux prises avec le siècle (Odile Jacob Paris, 1997). – Denis Serre Jul 19 '12 at 6:07
As far as 19-th century mathematicians are concerned, apparently Sofya Kovalevskaya's novel * Nihilist Girl, translated by Natasha Kolchevska with Mary Zirin ; introduction by Natasha Kolchevska. Modern Language Association of America (2001) ISBN 0-87352-790-9 has some autobiographic elements. I cannot confirm, not having read the book. Kovalevskaya also published (in Russian) memories of her childhood. – Margaret Friedland Jul 19 '12 at 15:19
@Margaret Friedland, An autobiography written in 19th century by a ramarkable female mathematician: Sonya Kovalevsky, A Russian Childhood, Springer; Softcover reprint of hardcover 1st ed. 1978 edition (December 3, 2010), Also: – Papiro Jul 21 '12 at 22:49

You can't miss Goro Shimura's, The map of my life !

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Ulam : Adventures of a mathematician
My memory is that it is full of amusing Von Neumann stories.

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A photo of Neumann, Feynmann and Ulam at Los Alamos is available in the paper On Stan Ulam and his Mathematics, – Papiro Jul 19 '12 at 1:35
Ulam's autobiography is one of my favorite books of all time. He'll be giving his firsthand accounts of the Nazi takeover of Europe, the Manhattan Project, or the birth of the "military-industrial complex" or of the computer age -- and then he'll say, "yeah, but what really interested me at that time was the following question about topological spaces..." And then he'll explain the question so well that you too will temporarily get more interested in it than in all the other stuff happening around him. – Scott Aaronson Aug 26 '12 at 2:22
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In French: Souvenirs d’apprentissage. – Denis Serre Jul 19 '12 at 6:05
By the way, I have always tried to find the original French version instead of the English translation: does it still exist? Do you think it is possible to by it somewhere? – Filippo Alberto Edoardo Jul 19 '12 at 8:34
@Filippo Alberto Edoardo: as far as I know, and I also spend some effort on this, the French version is in general unavailable. Of course somewhere there could be some left-over one or a used version. – quid Jul 19 '12 at 10:17

Récoltes et semailles, by Alexander Grothendieck (available at the Grothendieck circle), might be considered as an autobiography.

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Hmm, not sure you should link to that publicly... – David Roberts Jul 19 '12 at 6:15
This book has been translated into Russian. Online you can see it here: It was printed in 2001 by "Regular and chaotic dynamics" (Izhevsk, but available in Moscow). – Yulia Kuznetsova Jul 19 '12 at 11:02
@Yulia: AFAIK, only a small part of it was translated into Russian, unfortunately. – Vladimir Dotsenko Jul 19 '12 at 12:24

A mathematician's apology by Hardy contains many autobiographical anecdotes about his life and may be could count as a autobiography in some sense.

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Do not miss Halmos' Automathography : I Want to Be a Mathematician. Halmos was a master writer, extremely entertaining.

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Random Curves: Journeys of a Mathematican by Neal Koblitz.

Excerpt from the publisher's description:

Besides his own personal career in mathematics and cryptography, Koblitz details his travels to the Soviet Union, Latin America, Vietnam and elsewhere; political activism; and academic controversies relating to math education, the C. P. Snow "two-culture" problem, and mistreatment of women in academia.

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Not exactly an autobiography but entertaining and with some autobiographical comments is J.E. Littlewood's "A mathematician's miscellany".

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Eine Frau und die Mathematik 1933--1940: der Beginn einer wissenschafltichen Laufbahn by Hel [Helene] Braun. (My translation of the title: A Woman and Mathematics: 1933--1940: the Beginning of a Scientific Career)

Helene Braun (1914-1986) was a number theorist (thesis under Siegel, 1937, in Marburg) Later she worked at Göttingen, IAS Princeton, and mainly Hamburg (from the 50s until her retirement).

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+1 for a non-English language item (not that anything is wrong with the English ones listed here), and I wish I had another one to upvote a reference to something written by a woman. Your answer makes me want to check the book out, even though my German is not perfect. – Margaret Friedland Jul 19 '12 at 16:21

The most recent must be Cédric Villani: Théorème vivant (Grasset 2012), available by Aug 22nd !!!

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If this is anything like his talks it should be entertaining! – David Roberts Jul 19 '12 at 11:08
It is quite peculiar in the sense that it is aimed at a general audience, but is not afraid to use all kinds of unexplained jargon and equations. This is certainly on purpose to give the general reader at least a few verbatim quotes from papers and e-mail exchanges. – Lennart Meier Sep 16 '13 at 18:07
  • Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe

  • For 19th century, I've been wanting to read Science and Hypothesis by Henri Poincaré. Not exactly autobiography but he apparently discusses mathematical creativity in it, via analyzing his own thought processes.

  • Gian-Carlo Rota (1996) Indiscrete Thoughts is probably interesting. I haven't read it yet either.

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I've read Rota. I don't remember it too well but I remember enjoying it. – Michael Lugo Jul 22 '12 at 0:48
Yes, it is very well written and quite entertaining. – Brendan McKay Jul 22 '12 at 1:32
Are any of these autobiographies?? I don't think the first and third qualify; I haven't read the second. – Todd Trimble Aug 25 '12 at 6:11

Hugo Steinhaus: Wspomnienia i zapiski (Memories and notes), (published posthumously in Wrocław, 2002, 1st edition by Aneks, London, 1992).

To my knowledge, not available in English, but there is a German translation:

Erinnerungen und Aufzeichnungen, Neisse-Verlag, 2010

Personal life, mathematics (with motivation and solution of some problems), interaction with other mathematicians (including Stefan Banach, Bronislaw Knaster, but also Steinhaus's students Stanislaw Ulam and Marek Kac, whose autobiographies are listed here, and many others), academic environment in Poland, World Wars I and II, rebuilding of Western Borderlands after 1945- very engaging and insightful (if sometimes opinionated) writing, little "navel-gazing". And not so easy to google up if you did not already know about it, even if you read Polish.

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Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, To Talk of Many Things, An Autobiography, Manchester University Press, 2004.

From Google Books

To talk of many things' is a remarkable account of a remarkable life. This story covers two world wars and the near sixty years that followed in a life dominated by mathematics and public service. Profoundly deaf from birth, Dame Kathleen has never seen her condition as an obstacle. She travelled widely through Europe between the wars, was a wartime don at Somerville College, Oxford, served on national education committees from the 1950s onwards, has been at various times on the Boards of the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester Polytechnic and Lancaster and Salford Universities and in the 1990s chased total eclipses of the sun round the globe.A former Lord Mayor and Freeman of the City of Manchester, Dame Kathleen writes compellingly of her greatest enthusiasm - mathematics. The publication of her work on Magic Squares and her presidency of the Institute of Mathematics have been high points in a long and distinguished career.

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I think the book The shape of inner space by S.T. Yau with S.Nadis counts too, since more than half of it is an autobiography of Yau (and the other half discusses the implications of his research for string theory).

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Leonhard Euler's autobiography, here

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Analyse des travaux scientifiques de Henri Poincaré faite par lui-même, Acta Math. 38 (1921), 3-135.

Apparently written in 1901 at the request of Mittag-Leffler, this is not quite an autobiography but more in the style of the "Notices sur les travaux scientifiques" that many French scientists wrote, often as candidates to the Academy of Sciences. A 19th century example is Darboux (1884).

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  1. Walter Rudin: So hab ich's erlebt. [The way I remember it] From Vienna to Wisconsin—memoirs of a mathematician. Translated from the 1997 English original by Ina Paschen with the assistance of the author. R. Oldenbourg Verlag, Munich, 1998.

  2. Walter Hayman, My background and early life. Comput. Methods Funct. Theory 8 (2008), no. 1-2, xi–xxvi.

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An outstanding autobiography in my opinion is Egon Balas: Will to Freedom.

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A book referencing 12 short biographies of contemporaneous mathematicians is the book recently published in France, Parcours de mathématiciens, see there.

If I may give my opinion about the origins of this thread : of course autobiographies of mathematicians can help to understand some shards of lost history of mathematics or evolution of mathematical ideas. Autobiography is for long a pure literary work (memories are the more historical equivalent) due to his inherent difficulties (autobiographical pact, expression, retrospection), and hence less practiced by scientist who were, during the XIXth century and before, mainly philosopher, professor or technical worker, less interested in this king of difficulties than literature author, artists or theologist.

But if it is the aim of all that, there is no need to search only among autobiographies (event if their focus on personal history and feelings could help to understand the influence of all that on ideas, what is usually done for artists but not for scientist). Indeed, as lots of scientist were interested in philosophy, they used to write about the meanings and impacts of their works and ideas. Principally during the post-enlightenment.

Some examples, I will complete with some others when I will be back home, that are often included in mathematical works, for instance in introductions :

  • Dedekind, Was sind und was sollen die zahlen (What are numbers and what should they be?), developing his own vision of what a number is and its differences with the notion of measure
  • Hankel, Vorlesungen uber die complexent zahlen une ihre fonctione, who develop all his philosophy of the principle of forms in science
  • Grassmann, Ausdehnunglehre, who thought a lot about the generalization mechanism, mainly concerning numbers
  • Lagrange wrote letters during his whole life in order to remain in contact with the most mathematicians possible, there is there myriad of fascinating discussions and debates on different points fo view
  • Galois have wrote no autobiography, but his letters are very personal and rich, not only the overstudied very last one.

For limiting myself to the XIXth.

Moreover, all the books mathematicians write about what they do are also part of their autobiographies, in the sense that it really show what they think, maybe even more than in an autobiography, restricted by the usually chosen chronological order. Henceforth, to some extent, history of mathematics is made less by writing about his life than writing about his ideas. And for that, there are plenty of works, mainly since the XVIIIth.

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