How many, while strolling amongst the trails of cemeteries, stopping by with the gaze from one tombstone to the other, have been captured by recurring dates and coincidence of numbers? Born on the 1st of January and died on the 1st of January; born in 1900 or in the 44’s and died in 2000 or in the 88’s; come to life on the 10th/12 and disappeared on the 21st/1. The graveyards are full of randomness of this sort. But was it just randomness, of a funny coincidence of dates or, behind all this there was the fate, decided destiny, or why not a mathematical formulae too. Was it possible to calculate the date of each other’s passing?

Famous in that sense was the mathematician Abraham de Moivre that, through a series of mysterious calculation, he would have apparently been able to predict the exact day of his own death.

Below: the Dance of Death by Thomas Rowlandson from 1816

Abraham de Moivre was born in Vitry-le-François, French area surrounded by the Marne river,in the ancient province of Champagne, on the 26th May 1667. His family was Protestant, hence de Moivre attended the Protestant Academy of Sedan and became passionate about math, even when the subject was not part of the study program. In 1684 he moved to Paris in order to study physics but then the cancellation of the Edict of Nantes occurred, lately replaced by the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. This choice would deny freedom of conscience and cult and would sanction the expulsion from the French land of all the Calvinists, therefore Abraham de Moivre, in his 18’s, is forced to cross the Channel to move towards England.

There, in the Kingdom of James II of England, Scotland and Ireland, last Catholic monarch, he carried on with his studies in math and in 1692 became friend of the mathematicians and physics Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley. In 1697 he became partner of the Royal Society of London after having generalised the Binomial Theorem of Newton in the Multinomial Theorem.

In the English city he improved his mathematical knowledge, while contributing to both trigonometry and the elaboration of the calculation of probabilities with his “Doctrine of chances” (1718, then 1756) and with the treaty “Annuities upon lives” (1724-25, then 1752).

Throughout the years, although he never got a position as a teacher and by living just above the poverty line, de Moivre worked hard in order to define the “de Moivre’s formula”, one of the basis of the analysis of the complex numbers in which, the mathematician links them to trigonometry, to then leave a partial draft of what will be the Stirling approximation.

Due to those studies, in the last season of his life he managed to elaborate a calculation through which he became popular, even for those non interested in math: Abraham de Moivre managed to define the exact day in which he would have died.

The prodigious venture was poorly documented, but for what has got back all the way to us, it is known that Abraham de Moivre, in the last years of his life, had noticed how he would sleep less minutes each day: 15 minutes, to be precise. The legend says that in a short time the French mathematician had started suffering from irreversible lethargy and it was believed that he was thinking the theory for which, once the addiction of the extra minutes slept would have reached 24 hours, would have died.

Below: the Dance of Death by Thomas Rowlandson from 1816

After accurate calculations a date popped up: 27th November 1754.

Incredibly, the theorem  about the death appeared as correct: Moivre died in the evening of the 27th November 1754, 87 years old, in his house in London.

How did the genial mathematician got to figure out that date? We will never know. De Moivre, in fact burned all his paperwork where the mysterious calculations were kept, hence, after 250 years, the mathematical formula hypothesised by the man, who was able to figure out the date of death, still remains a charming enigma.

In recent times Abraham de Moivre and his incredible story have been mentioned in s novel titled “Malinverno”, by Domenico Dara.

Rachele Goracci


Vanilla Magazine - History, Culture, Mistery and Legends