Anyone familiar with math or physics knows the name Leonhard Euler. Euler (pronounced "oiler"), who died in 1783, was a giant of history, and worked in a range of subjects from integral calculus to acoustics, from astronomy to music theory to shipbuilding. One of his best-known equations, Euler’s Identity, was once voted the most beautiful theorem in math.
Fittingly for such a colossal intellect, Euler was astonishingly prolific. He published more than 500 research papers and some two dozen books. When he died in 1783, he left behind about 300 more articles in manuscript form.
The complete edition of his scientific works has become one of the most extraordinary projects in publishing. When work began on the Leonhardi Euleri Opera Omnia in 1908, the committee overseeing its publication estimated the total number of volumes to come at 43. In 1913, that number was increased to 66, and shortly thereafter to 72. The edition was divided into three series: 29 volumes on mathematics, 31 on mechanics and astronomy, and 12 on physics and miscellaneous.
Now, after more than a century—and the deaths of various editors working on the Opera—the final two of the Opera’s now 74 volumes will be published by the German publisher Springer by 2014. These two remaining volumes (26 and 27 of series II) will be on positional astronomy.
There is also an Opera correspondence series under way. Of approximately 3300 letters (or 11,000 pages) relating to Euler’s "manuscript heritage," 420 are already published and 660 more will be published, with luck, by 2015.
In addition to the pure quantity of material, publishing the work of Enlightenment polymath poses certain challenges to modern scholars. In an email to Brainiac, Martin Mattmüller, secretary of the Euler Committee based at Basel, Switzerland, wrote:
While the state of preservation of the sources is usually quite good and Euler's handwriting is generally not hard to read—especially in the antiqua script he used for Latin and French, as opposed to the German Kurrentschrift used in his German-language letters and notes--it still takes some practice until you can read these texts fluently. Moreover it's a fact that mathematicians and physicists with a sound knowledge of Latin are a threatened species (in Europe, too); and philologists or cultural historians without a specific interest in scientific issues rarely study texts of this kind (and I regret to have to say that when they do, there is often a considerable risk of mis-interpretation). So a competent transcription of 17th- or 18th-century texts dealing with issues in the exact sciences is not an easy task.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.