Some would say that the entire, short life of Evariste Galois was full of stupid, unlucky mistakes; unfortunately, they may be right. “The record of his misfortunes might well stand as a sinister monument to all self-assured pedagogues, unscrupulous politicians, and conceited academians” (Bell 362).
Evariste Galois was born on October the twenty fifth in 1811. His father was the mayor of Bourg-la-Reine and his mother was his only teacher for the first eleven years of his life. Those first eleven years may have been his only happy ones.
When Galois was twelve he entered the lycee of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, his first school. The place was a horror, resembling more a prison than a school, and so it would be for Galois. He spent the first few years at school bored, finding little interest in the classical topics of rhetoric and literature and his inattention to study got him demoted.
Soon he became interested in a subject taught mostly as an aside, mathematics. He discovered the geometry of Legendre, and quickly devoured it, reveling in a new avenue of scholastic exploration that challenged him. Soon he was reading all he could of mathematics and he began to neglect his other studies even more. His prowess in mathematics did him little good however as his instructors insisted that Galois prove all his work, a task that infuriated him to no end. Galois was a genius and made leaps of intuition that he thought were only too obvious. His instructors thought him arrogant for resisting and he believed them ignorant for not seeing as clearly as himself. Still, his skill was such that he won the first prize in General Examination, much to the surprise of his instructors and peers.
When he was sixteen Galois, unaware of Abel’s mistake, recreated it, and for a short time thought that he had performed the impossible and solved the general equation of the fifth degree. He then applied at the Ecole Polytechnique for examinations and promptly failed. A quarter of a century later Terquim reported on the subject of Galois’ failure, “A candidate of superior intelligence is lost with an examiner of inferior intelligence” (Bell 367). When he was seventeen he presented in the form of a memoir all his mathematical discoveries to the most revered Cauchy. In general Cauchy was an apt judge, however he wasn’t perfect and he forgot about Galois’ work, even losing the manuscript. Such was the nature of his life that when Galois applied again in his eighteenth year to the Ecole Polytechnique, he failed just as swiftly as he did the first time.
So went his entire short, short life. He spent most of his time making brilliant discoveries with little or no instruction, and never any support. Then he would try to publish these works or get some recognition and inevitably fail. It wasn’t long before he became disenchanted with his scholastic pursuits and began to spend an undue amount of time involving himself in politics. Like many young, disgruntled men with a head for politics and a desire to be part of something larger than himself, he joined the military. Upon discovery of his mathematical skill his superiors placed him into the artillery corps.
It was on the ninth of May 1831 that everything began to end. He was gathered with two hundred young republicans to protest the disbandment of his beloved artillery corps, when he reputedly threatened the King, always considered to be treason and generally a poor thing to do in public. Fortunately for Galois, he had a good lawyer and managed to get off, although my research made no indication of how.
He was free a month before being arrested again as a precautionary method. Galois was held in prison for another two months before a charge was trumped up and he was sentenced to a prison term. His time in prison was not idle as it allowed him the time to devote full attention to his mathematical work After being paroled only a short time Galois fell in love and became involved in a duel of honor.
On the day before his match with destiny, Galois spent the entire evening working on his masterpiece, disregarding slumber in a fit of inspiration. He had found and scribed in his journal, the true solution of a riddle of torment, a problem he had wrestled with for most of his mathematical career, using the theory of groups with great success. Unfortunately, he neglected important proofs and skipped large portions in his haste to document what he believed was most important, noting in the margins that he would complete the work at a later time. His last text will surely keep mathematicians busy for centuries.
His time on that evening may have been better spent in mental or physical preparation for his coming duel. In the cool morning fog, on the 30th of May 1832, Galois was left, dying from a bullet wound to the intestines, in the field where he fell. A peasant found him and transported him to a hospital, where he died the following day.
Bell E.T. Men of Mathematics. Simon and Schuster 1937