Old white man of the day

For some Pi is 22/7, I remember it as 3.1416. To ten decimal places, it is 3.1415926535 and that is sufficient to give the circumference of the earth to an accuracy of millimetres if the earth were a perfect circle which it is not. Our old white man of the day, who could recite Pi to 707 decimal places, was acclaimed by his peers as the greatest living mathematician. Quote.

Alexander Aitken was the greatest mathematician of his era and possessed an astonishing computational brain that could complete challenges that today are reserved for the most complex computers. As one of the most remarkable mathematical brains of all time, Aitken could multiply two nine digit numbers in his head in 30 seconds, and render fractions to 26 decimal places in under five seconds.[…]

Aitken’s phenomenal skill in mental arithmetic made him the greatest mental calculator for whom there is any reliable record. In psychological tests in Britain in the 1920s he took thirty seconds to multiply 987,654,321 by 123,456,789 and produce the correct answer: 121,932,631,112,635,269. Asked to render the fraction 4/47 as a decimal, he waited four seconds and answered: “Point 08510638297872340425531914 – and that’s as far as I can carry it.”[…]

Aitken’s mathematical work was in statistics, numerical analysis and algebra. In numerical analysis he introduced the idea of accelerating the convergence of a numerical method. He also introduced a method of progressive linear interpolation. In algebra he made contributions to the theory of determinants.

His main mathematical interests were in Actuarial Mathematics, Linear Algebra, Numerical Methods and Statistics. Econometricians have benefited especially from his applications of matrix algebra to problems in numerical analysis, as well as his statistical contributions to the theory of linear models. Dr. David Giles, currently teaching in the Department of Economics at University of Victoria (Canada) writes that, “Every student of Econometrics must be indebted to Alexander Aitken”. Econometricians also use the Generalised Least Squares (“Aitken”) estimator when this model has a non-standard error covariance matrix.

He published on such topics as symmetric groups, invariants, the solution of linear and polynomial equations, eigenvalue problems, and computational algorithms. The statistics paper “On the Estimation of Statistical Parameters” (co-authored with H.C. Silverstone, 1942) has been most influential and his books, “Determinants and Matrices”, and “Canonical Matrices” (with H.W. Turnbull) are classics in their field.

Aitken was born in Dunedin, New Zealand on 1 April, 1895, and attended Otago Boys’ High School from 1908 to 1912. He was not a child prodigy: arithmetic bored him and he did badly in it at school until he was nearly 14 years old. Then he experienced some sort of numeric epiphany, during a mathematical lesson by a good teacher at Otago Boys. After that, the whole subject came into focus and he became absorbed by figures.

Aitken wrote:

“Only at the age of 15 did I feel that I might develop a real power and for some years about that time, without telling anyone, I practised mental calculation from memory like a Brahmin Yogi, a little extra here, a little extra there, until gradually what had been difficult at first became easier and easier.”

He had the distinction of gaining first place in the nationwide University Scholarship Examination of 1912.

He then studied at the University of Otago in 1913, 1914, and 1918, but his studies were cut short by active service during the First World War. He enlisted in 1915 and left New Zealand with the Sixth Reinforcements and served with the Otago Infantry. He served in the Gallipoli landing, Egypt, and in France where he was wounded in the Battle of the Somme in France. After three months in hospital he was sent back to New Zealand in 1917. His wartime experiences were to haunt him for the rest of his life.

During the war he astounded his fellow soldiers by his ability to memorise, amongst other things, the numbers on their rifles. While serving in the Otago Company at Armentires, the platoon book was destroyed. Aitken recited the names and numbers of all members of his platoon.[…]

Following his return to New Zealand and recovery, he achieved, in 1918, First Class Honours in Latin and French and (remarkably) Second Class Honours in Mathematics. Aitken followed his original intention and became a school teacher at his old school, Otago Boys’ High School. His mathematical genius bubbled under the surface and, encouraged by the new professor of mathematics at Otago University, Aitken gained a post-graduate scholarship which took him to Edinburgh University, Scotland in 1923 [where] he studied for a Ph.D. […] Aitken’s Ph.D. thesis on the smoothing of data was considered so outstanding that he was awarded a D.Sc.

In 1925 he was appointed to Edinburgh where he spent the rest of his life. His initial position was Lecturer in Statistics and Mathematical Economics. After encounters with mechanical calculating machines that made his extraordinary mental powers unnecessary, Aitken’s interests matured. At 28 he was at the peak of his calculating abilities, but from lightening fast calculations his focus began to shift to the theoretical. […]

He became a Reader in Statistics in 1936, the year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Ten years later, in 1946, at the age of 51, he was appointed to Whittaker’s chair in Mathematics. […]

Appointed Fellow of the Royal Society in 1936, Aitken won the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s prestigious Gunning Victoria Jubilee Prize in 1953 for original work in Physical Mathematics, as well as honorary degrees from the University of Edinburgh and the (then) University of New Zealand.[…]

Alexander Aitken was a man of great and disparate talents. A champion high-jumper into his late twenties, he was also a writer and a poet. He was devoted to music and was regarded as a fine violinist and viola player, as well as being an occasional composer. Aitken explained his arithmetic technique as dividing numbers into sets of five and “submitting them to German waltz time.” The Edinburgh University psychologist Dr. Ian Hunter, who studied Aitken in the 1920’s, noted that numbers appeared to him as a tune, “like a Bach Fugue”. Dr. Hunter reported that his calculating actions, before analytic or biological interpretation, appeared as reflexive and automatic as those of a boxer or an expert typist.[…]

The root of Aitken’s genius was also his curse. Aitken’s memories of the war did not fade and his horrific recollections of the battle of the Somme lived with him as real as the day he experienced them. He wrote of them near the end of his life, aged 68 in “Gallipoli to the Somme”. It is believed these hauntings contributed to the ill health he suffered, and eventually led to his death in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 3 November, 1967, aged 72. End of quote.


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In solidarity with the those in the world’s most despised demographic, WH has decided to ‘come out’ as an old white male. WH enjoys exercising the white-male privilege that Whaleoil provides for him by writing the occasional post challenging climate change consensus; looking at random tech issues that tweak his interest, as a bit of a tech nerd; or generally poking the borax at anyone in public life who goes on record revealing their stupidity. WH never excelled on the sports field because his coaches never allowed him to play in his preferred position on the right-wing. WH also enjoys his MG.

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