November 26, 2008

Mathematical LIFE in Photos

One of the treats of my childhood was the arrival each week of LIFE magazine, with its amazing photographs and engaging articles. I learned about dinosaurs, galaxies, Hollywood stars and epic movies, sports events, episodes in U.S. history, and many other topics while leafing through the issues. The large photos and detailed illustrations were often strikingly memorable.

Now I can experience those fascinating photos again. Google is digitizing the entire photographic archives of LIFE magazine—10 million photos in all, most of which were not published and have not been seen previously by the public. The images—negatives, slides, glass plates, etchings, and prints—have been sitting in dusty archives for years. About 20 percent of the collection is already online (

The images are organized by decade (when the photos were taken) and by category (people, places, events, sports, and culture). When I searched the photo archive for "mathematics," the results yielded dozens of intriguing and beguiling images.

Many photos display tools of mathematics (abaci, calculators, computers, slide rules, and even protractors) or mathematics in classroom settings. One set by famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, for example, focuses on the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1941: West Point cadets marching to mathematics class with slide rules in hand, Cadets reporting to their instructor in a math class.

The archive also includes photos of prominent mathematicians, such as Charles Dodgson, Edouard Cech, Norbert Wiener, Nikolai Bogolyubov, John M. Tukey, and David Blackwell. The archive has many photos of Albert Einstein and several of his cluttered study in Princeton, N.J. Math teachers and students also appear in a variety of settings. One image, for example, shows math senior Judith Gorenstein working at the blackboard at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1956. Another features a student at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., in 1940 studying a model of geometrical solid.

One is my favorites is a stark display of gadgets for teaching plane and solid geometry.

The LIFE photo archive is available via Google Image Search free for personal and research purposes. Copyright and ownership of all images remain with Time Inc.

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