STEM is for Everyone: Nicholas Saunderson, Blind Mathematician
Does math require the ability to see numbers? No! Studying math when blind requires thinking about numbers in new ways. This eighteenth century mathematician developed his own tools to help him work with numbers.
Nicholas Saunderson (1682-1739) was a mathematician who became known for his lectures on mathematics and geometry. Even though smallpox left him blind at age one, Saunderson's interest in math was supported and encouraged throughout his school years. In his twenties, he became a lecturer at Cambridge and went on to succeed William Whitson as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a prestigious position previously held by Sir Isaac Newton and, later, Stephen Hawking. Saunderson held the Lucasian Chair at Cambridge for 28 years (1711-1739).
Mathematics may seem like a field of study that requires vision. If you think about complicated equations, graphs, and geometric planes, you may think of these in terms of how they "look" when written on a blackboard, drawn on graph paper, or entered in a calculator. Maybe you have watched a TV show like "Numbers" or a movie like Good Will Hunting in which mathematics is featured in the form of expansive equations. The Hidden Figures movie, too, shows boards covered in complicated equations related to flight paths and trajectories. Being able to see (or write by hand) these equations may seem like a requirement for a mathematician, but Saunderson's story shows that understanding and using math is not dependent upon seeing it.
Biographical accounts of Saunderson's life talk about his keen sense of hearing and his ability to assess spatial parameters (like the size of a room) based on sound and touch. One might assume, too, a strong sense of recall and an ability to keep numbers he heard straight. But Saunderson also developed tools to help him navigate and visualize the world of math through touch. Sometimes described as similar to an abacus or as an early calculator, Saunderson devised a board with holes and a system of pegs that allowed him to do calculations. He called his approach Palpable Arithmetic. He used another board with pegs around which he wrapped strings to create geometric shapes, similar to how geoboards are used today.
Near the end of his life, Saunderson's teachings were compiled in The Elements of Algebra. The ten-volume book was published posthumously the year after he died.
As Saunderson's story shows, he was able to find ways (even in the early 18th century) to pursue his interest in math despite being blind and to take advantage of his other senses and to create tools and systems that allowed him to do his work. Saunderson is not the only famous mathematician who was blind. Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) is said to have laid the groundwork for much of what we view as modern mathematics notation and terminology. For example, he introduced the use of f(x) and popularized the use of π (Pi) to denote the ratio of a circle's diameter to its circumference. Euler's identity is an important equation in math, and Euler's Method appeared in Hidden Figures.
Unlike Saunderson, Euler didn't grow up blind. He became blind in one eye in his thirties and was later almost completely blind. However, Euler is said to have produced more than half of his mathematical writings after becoming blind. Bernard Morin (1931-2018), too, was a blind mathematician. Morin is known for his work in topology, an area of geometry that focuses on geometric and spatial properties even as shape or size are continuously changed. Morin is especially known for demonstrating how a sphere can be flipped inside out without creasing, cutting, or tearing.
Students who are interested in mathematics can explore with a range of hands-on math projects, including these five science projects:
- Play-Doh Math: use play dough shapes to explore the relationship between an object's dimensions and its volume.
- M&M Math: learn more about statistical analysis using a bag of candies.
- Crystal Ball Math: use population models to predict population growth for species of animals.
- Tiling with Spidrons: experiment with different ways of using spidron-based shapes to tile a plane (an infinite two-dimensional space).
- Divide and Conquer: Proving Pick's Theorem for Lattice Polygons: use a geoboard to experiment with lattice polygons and Pick's Theorem.
For more student math projects, see our Pure Mathematics interest area.
Students interested in math can explore careers in a range of math-based fields. Learn more about a few of these career paths with these five science career profiles:
For more information about this series of profiles of scientists with disabilities, see the introductory post: STEM is for Everyone: Scientists with Disabilities.
- The World of Blind Mathematicians
- Notes on Blind Mathematicians
- Dr. Saunderson's Palpable Arithmetic Decypher'd
- The Elements of Algebra (Amazon | Google Books)
- The most beautiful equation is... Euler's identity
- Euler's Identity: 'The Most Beautiful Equation'
- The 10 best mathematicians
This post is part of our STEM is for Everyone: Scientists with Disabilities series. This series is made possible by generous support from Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, a non-profit foundation jointly funded by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation of Japan and its US affiliates, working to make changes for the better by empowering youth with disabilities to lead productive lives.