From the day he first encountered geometry, Solomon Lefschetz was – as he once described it – “mathematics mad.” In 1907, the Russian born immigrant apprenticed at Westinghouse Electric, aiming to use his numerical prowess in the engineering field.
That year, however, tragedy struck. Lefschetz lost both hands in an accident that would restrict his capabilities as an engineer and push him to pursue mathematics.
A few years later, Lefschetz left engineering to accept a fellowship at Clark University. There, he researched information about the largest number of cusps that a plane curve of given degree may possess.
A cusp is the point where a curve begins to turn back on itself, forming a parabola. From here, Lefschetz developed an affinity for topology – a subset of geometry – that would shape his career and discoveries thereafter.
“If it’s just turning the crank, it’s algebra” Lefschetz is quoted as saying, “but if it’s got an idea in it, it’s topology.”