(September 3, 1814 – March 15, 1897)

Sylvester was an indefatigable genius who triumphed over unending barriers. Despite coming overall second (known as the Second Wrangler) in the University of Cambridge’s Mathematical Tripos exam, he was denied his degree just because he was Jewish. He would also be refused a professorial chair at New York’s Columbia University, for the same reason. Institutionalized discriminations, which were rampant in those days in the scientific community, drove him into settling for the legal profession. Still, his love for maths did not die. He met and befriended Arthur Cayley (a successful lawyer with unquenchable appetite for algebra). Together with Cayley, Sylvester developed the Invariant Theory. He would also make deep and decisive contributions to Matrix Theory, Partition Theory, Number Theory, Combinatorics, Mechanics, and even Poetry. These, alongside his other scientific works, prompted both the Johns Hopkins University (USA) and the Oxford University (UK) to woo him. He founded the American Journal of Mathematics while at Johns Hopkins, and did retain his Oxford chair for life. Apart from being remembered for his theorems, formulae and concepts, James Sylvester is often likened to Gottfried Leibniz: due to his knack for coining mathematical terms (such as graph, matrix, invariant, covariant and discriminant). He is the eponym of several items, including: the London Royal Society’s Sylvester Medal, the lunar impact crater Sylvester, and the Sylvester Library: which is a vector, matrix and geometry library for JavaScript. William Pitt Durfee (who introduced the Durfee squares to Number Theory) is among his most notable students.


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