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John Napier, a Famous Scottish Mathematician

John Napier or John Neper was a Scottish mathematician born on February 1, 1550. He was born at the Merchiston tower near Merchiston Castle, an independent school for suburbian boys of Colinton in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father was Sir Archibald Napier and his mother was Janet Bothwell. As a young boy at the age of thirteen, he was given an early education at home from private tutors. He went to the University of St. Andrews, where he developed an interest in theology. He also had a love for religion his whole life. He only stayed for a short amount of time at St. Andrews and left without getting a degree.

Not much is known about Napier’s early life and how he increased in his training of mathematics. There is a rumor that when he was a young adult, he traveled to the Mainland of Europe for an education. He took this trip because he took the advice of his grandfather telling him to. Some say that he studied at the University of Paris and that he spent his free time in Italy and in the Netherlands. When his studies were completed, he returned to Scotland at twenty-one years old in 1571. John’s first marriage was in 1572 to Elizabeth Stirling, the daughter of James Stirling, the 4th Laird of Keir and Cadder. Together they had two children. His wife died in 1579 and he married Agnes Chisholm shortly after. He had ten children with her, giving him a total of 12 kids.

Since he was considered an adult, most of his family estates were transferred to him. In 1574, he brought a castle in Gartness. He later gained focus on managing the estates that were given to him. With managing his estates, he got involved in mathematical research when he had time. His life was spent in harsh religious disputes. He was a passionate and steadfast Protestant. When he dealt with the Church of Rome, he did not want money and did not give any money. He was consistently involved in religious controversies which delayed his scientific pursuits. He published ‘Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of Saint John’ in 1594. There is some suspicion that Napier asked for the help of Philip II to have James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I to the English throne. Napier was closely associated with the Scottish Church and begged James to take the church effectively with the Roman Catholics. John was a member of a committee appointed to make representations to the king about the welfare of the church. He told the king that “justice be done against the enemies of God’s Church.”In January 1594, Napier showed the King a letter that has the dedication of his Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of Saint John. This was a work that calculated to help contemporary events.This was a religious work written to influence political events during that time.When his father died in 1608, John moved to the Merchiston Castle with his family and settled there for the rest of his life.

In 1614, he talked about logarithms in a text called ‘Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio’. This was first published in Latin. Two years later, a man named Edward Wright translated and published the work in English. The book had 57 pages of explanations and 90 pages of tables of numbers that related to natural, regular logarithms. He discussed theorems in spherical trigonometry. This later became known as Napier’s Rules of Circular Parts. He gained a lot of honor and respect for the creation of logarithms.

English mathematician, Henry Briggs visited Napier in 1615 and they worked together on the process and Briggs came up with a new table that made it quicker and easier to perform calculations by hand. John Napier is seen as the founder of the Napierian logarithm or Naperian logarithm. The term means natural logarithm. His invention of logarithms created advancements not only in mathematics, but also in astronomy, dynamics, and other areas of physics. Logarithms can be seen in Algebra. In 1617, he published ‘Rabdologia, seu Numerationis per Virgulas Libri Duo’. To Napier, this was described as a new, yet original method of multiplying and dividing with small rods on a device. He created a manually-operated calculating device. The system could be used to calculate products and quotients of numbers. The method was about a combination of techniques used in Arab mathematics and the lattice multiplication. This became a very famous method, known as Napier’s bones. It was given this name due to the bone-like appearance of the ivory rods used in the method.

John Napier was a wonderful, inspiring mathematician. He was a genius from Scotland that brought a whole new theory to the world. We still use logarithms to this very day through the lattice process. He died on April 4, 1617, in Edinburgh, Scotland at Merchiston Castle. He died in the place where his life started. Even though Napier is gone, his incredible wit and creation will not be forgotten.

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