Sorry, I am merely a Middle School maths teacher at an Australian secondary school. I remember reading years ago about a famous mathematician (18th or 19th Century?) who calculated table upon table of numbers (pi? prime numbers?) but made an error somewhere along the way and, based on that error, all subsequent numbers in the table were incorrect. Tragically, he continued to make that error for the last few years of his life without realizing it. I'd love to know his name but also I wondered if anyone could calculate the probability of his making the mistake in the first place. Obviously, he wasn't going to make the error in the first 10 seconds of doing the sums so why did he make the error when he did? Is there some type of critical mass beyond which creating an error becomes all but inevitable? Thank-you in advance for any replies I receive. Michael McLean

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    $\begingroup$ The probability of a mathematician making a mistake is one almost surely! $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2014 at 12:06
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    $\begingroup$ There is nothing "merely" about being a middle school maths teacher, and certainly nothing to apologize for! $\endgroup$
    – Pål GD
    Mar 6, 2014 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ While I agree that teaching Middle school math is nothing to be ashamed of, it may be worth knowing that your question would fit better in math.stackexchange.com -- don't worry about it, but such questions may have a better chance of not being closed there. $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2014 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ somewhat similar, have heard there is some lament by math historians that Gauss spent ~2 decades off/on doing a massive manual calculation of the orbit of Ceres asteroid.... $\endgroup$
    – vzn
    Mar 7, 2014 at 4:24
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    $\begingroup$ Not relevant to your specific question, but in the "mathematical errors" category (and something you and your students might find interesting): the weird story of the "Perko pair," and the story of the story of the "Perko pair" (richardelwes.co.uk/2013/08/14/the-revenge-of-the-perko-pair). $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2014 at 6:46

1 Answer 1


Was it William Shanks? He calculated $\pi$ to 707 digits, but he made a mistake in the 528th digit.

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    $\begingroup$ As a courious consequence of the mistake (only discovered in 1944, 71 years later), the Palais de la découverte in Paris had to repaint the wall of its celebrated circular Salle $\pi$ (which was created in occasion of the "Exposition universelle de Paris", 1937, and showed Shanks' digits on its wall). palais-decouverte.fr/index.php?id=824 $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2014 at 11:16

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