Charles Hermite

Charles Hermite  (Dec 24, 1822 to Jan 14, 1901)  Hermite was a French mathematician who made important contributions to several branches of mathematics, including number theory, elliptic functions, and orthogonal polynomials.  Much of his work has applications in modern physics.  For example, in quantum mechanics, observable quantities correspond to “Hermitian operators” on a Hilbert space (or more generally to “self-adjoint operators”). The wave functions of the harmonic oscillator can be written in terms of “Hermite polynomials.”  Hermite is also famous for proving in 1873 that the number e (the base of the natural logarithms) is a “transcendental number,” i.e. a number that is not the root of a polynomial with integer coefficients. Among Hermite’s doctoral students were the famous mathematicians Henri Poincaré , Thomas Stieltjes, and Henri Padé. Hermite was elected a member of the Académie des Sciences and a grand officer of the Légion d’honneur. In 1856, Hermite contracted smallpox. He was nursed back to health by a nun of the Sisters of Mercy. In the same year, and partly through the influence of the great mathematician Augustin-Louis Cauchy, he returned to the Catholic faith. In the words of the well-known mathematician Émile Borel, “Hermite was deeply attached to the Catholic faith; it was the stay and center of his life.”  

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