I’m not sure whether this question suits this website, however, I don’t know where else I could ask it. It is no mathematical problem or something similar, still I hope it won’t be closed.

A few weeks ago, our assistant professor in physics told us a story about Maxwell when we came to speak about Maxwell’s equations. He said rumour has it that once in an exam, Maxwell faced a differential equation or integral – at that time thought unsolvable – and solved it.

I wonder whether there are more famous rumours or anecdotes about mathematicians or physicists (and which of them are true and which not). I believe everyone knows the story of how Gauss computed

100∑n=1n

an exercise his teacher gave to his class to keep it busy. Or a more famous example: Everyone knows how Newton discovered gravity (is that one actually true?). Or how Archimedes found Archimedes’ principle. So, to put it into a single line:

Do you know any other noteworthy anecdotes about famous mathematicians or physicists?

EDIT:In case you provide an answer, please also state whether the anecdote is true or not, if possible. Thanks a lot for the hitherto existing answers!

**Answer**

My all-time favorite is about the Russian mathematical physicist Igor Tamm. I’ll just quote from this site.

Russian physicist Igor Tamm won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1958. During the Russian revolution, he was a physics professor at the University of Odessa in the Ukraine. Food was in short supply, so he made a trip to a nearby village in search of food. While he was in the village, a bunch of anti-communist bandits surrounded the town.

The leader was suspicious of Tamm, who was dressed in city clothes. He demanded to know what Tamm did for a living. He explained that he was a university professor looking for food. “What subject?,” the bandit leader asked. Tamm replied “I teach mathematics.”

“Mathematics?” said the leader. “OK. Then give me an estimate of the error one makes by cutting off a Maclaurin series expansion at the nth term. Do this and you will go free. Fail, and I will shoot you.”

Tamm was not just a little astonished. At gunpoint, he managed to work out the answer. He showed it to the bandit leader, who perused it and then declared “Correct! Go home.”

Tamm never discovered the name of the bandit.From “Calculus makes you live longer”, in “100 essential things you didn’t know you didn’t know”, by John Barrow.

I always tell my Calculus II students this story. After all, you never know when knowledge of Taylor series might save your life. 🙂

*Added*: As far as I know, this story is actually true.

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