The 365 Commitment

James Garfield – My Unsuspected Hero

James Garfield was the 20th president of the United States. He was republican, back when they republicans were the radicals in the country. He was an accomplished attorney and served as a Major General for the Union Army in the Civil War. After his military career, he went into politics and served in the House of Representatives for nine terms and was about to be elected a U.S. Senator when the presidential campaign in 1880 threw him a curve ball. Trying to not appear so radical, the GOP decided to suddenly nominate Garfield instead of a few controversial candidates. He did not really seek this position. Imagine suddenly being thrown into a presidential campaign!

His campaign was not that fancy. He was just good at going door to door and talking to people. He was a pretty good speaker and probably riding the wave of sentiment at the time for Civil Rights was elected president. Unfortunately he was shot a few months later by a person who got bypassed on a position in the government, who was that disgruntled about not getting the job! There was nothing super impressive about his career, but he was a good person, with good intent, well spoken and seemed to be a really competent statesman. He also, apparently, was a pretty good mathematician!

This morning I woke with a passion to actually understand why and how the theorem of Pythagoras works. You remember a^2 + b^2 = c^2. In high school geometry and pre-calculus you just took it for granted this equation was correct, but why does it work? I remember hearing this explained years ago but I never quite got my head into it, I just trusted it.

Well, after some searching with Duck Duck Go (yeah, stick that in your eye, Google) – I discovered that there are over 370 proofs for this famous theorem. I guess many a PhD student has written their papers on this topic over the years! Anyway, there were some interesting ones, however my search results gravitated toward a couple of really interesting ones. Apparently, James Garfield was a bit of a hobbyist mathematician. In the April 1st edition of the 1876 New England Journal of Education his notes on his own proof of the Pythagorean theorem was published (he was a member of Congress at the time).

Well the explanation was quite marvelous and I went through it in careful detail and my mind was blown. So James Garfield is a new hero, for a very different reason. What would our lives be like if our politicians these days were also mathematicians?!?

Well, unfortunately he did not survive the bullet wound. Nowadays he would have been in an out of the hospital in an afternoon. He died from infection, most likely attributed to his surgery.

Guy Reams

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