Mathematics at Balliol College, Oxford

The Enlightenment

David Gregory (1659-1708)

A nephew of James Gregory, inventor of the Gregorian telescope, David was a friend of Newton and one of the earliest proponents of his theories. It was Gregory's notes which formed the basis of MacLaurin's Treatise of practical geometry. He was appointed Savilian Professor of Astronomy in 1692. Gregory's main contributions were, like his uncle, in the areas of calculus and optics.

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John Keill (1671-1721)

John Keill entered Balliol in 1694 and in 1712 he was elected Savilian Professor of Astronomy on the recommendation of Edmund Halley. Keill's main contributions were in the area of mechanics and physics, and he is said to have given inspiring lectures and demonstrations. His Introductiones ad veram Physicam et veram Astronomiam was both an influential exposition of Newton's theories, and a defence of Newton's priority in developing calculus.

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James Stirling (1692-1770)

James Stirling was one of the very early holders of the Snell Exhibition at Balliol, matriculating in 1711. Whilst in Oxford he wrote his Lineae Tertii Ordinis Neutoniae (1717), in which he reconstructed and corrected some mistakes in Newton's unpublished classification of cubic curves. Following the first Jacobite rebellion in 1715, Stirling, a known Jacobite sympathiser was effectively sent down by the University. He then travelled to Venice and to Padua, before returning to Britain. His reputation rests particularly on his book Methodus Differentialis: sive Tractatus de Summatione et Interpolatione Seriorum Infinitarum (1730), which contains the results from which Stirling's formula for n! is derived. Stirling corresponded on scientific matters with leading continental mathematicians, particularly with Euler.

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James Bradley (1692-1762)

James Bradley was one of the leading figures in the development of observational astronomy in the eighteenth century. He became Savilian Professor of Astronomy in 1721 and Astronomer Royal in 1742. He is particularly well-known for his discovery of stellar aberration, announced in An account of a new discovered motion of fixed stars in 1728. This provided the first direct observational evidence that the earth really was orbiting the sun, and the first accurate measurement of the speed of light. (Bradley's value of 295,000 km per sec is within 2% of the currently accepted value.) He was also the first to observe the nutation of the earth's axis.

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Adam Smith (1723-90)

Adam Smith came to Balliol as a Snell Exhibitioner. His treatise An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, founded modern economical theory. Until the introduction of the Honour Schools in 1800, one cannot really say which subject a student read, and whilst at Oxford Adam Smith seems largely to have followed a programme of self-directed study. It is known, however, that he was well acquainted with Newton's Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis, and that it influenced his approach to economics, so, even though his work was not directly mathematical, it seems appropriate to include him in a list of mathematicians.

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on 29 June 1998
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