Escutcheons of Science
 Niels Henrik Abel (1802-1829) 
 (c) 2006 - Jochen Wilke

Niels H. Abel  (1802-1829).  Brilliant Norwegian mathematician.

[ The above copyrighted picture is reproduced here by permission:   © 2006 Jochen Wilke ]

Argent, the  forbidden tree of knowledge  with the Serpent between Adam and Eve,
Adam receiving an apple from Eve whose sinister hand plucks a second apple, all Proper.
Crest:   Two wings Argent.


In the above pictorial rendition,  Jochen Wilke  chose to depart significantly from the traditional conventions which would have prevailed in a 19-th century representation of Abel's arms  (where Adam and Eve would have been shown  breeched, or with fig leaves).  Wilke himself just volunteered the comment that he did not feel "bound by Christian symbolism" about this issue and/or the "protective" posture of the snake.  Still, we can't resist the temptation (pun intended) to point out that Wilke's picture is  biblically  correct because we're told that Adam and Eve did not feel a need to cover their nakedness before this very incident with the Serpent.  It's also  anatomically  correct inasmuch as Adam and Eve  don't  have belly buttons  (think about it).  Just a joke!  Niels Abel 
 (1802-1829)

The fact that "Abel" was the name of the second son of Adam and Eve may have played a rôle in the design of these arms, which Niels Abel inherited from his Danish ancestors.  According to Hans Cappelen's "Norwegian Family Arms"  (the source quoted by Jochen Wilke)  the above arms were already used in the 1690's.  Another version of the same arms would show Adam and Eve supporting an inescutcheon charged with the tree and the Serpent.  This would properly place the focus on the parents of the  biblical  Abel, with the mythical tree & snake serving merely to identify the couple...

By itself, however, this particular tree is an overloaded symbol:

The Tree of Knowledge :

 Tree of Knowledge 
 (Gothic stove tile)  

The open book featured in the coat-of-arms of so many universities remains the most common symbol for academic knowledge in Western heraldry.  However, the trivial misunderstanding described below is increasingly making the fruit-bearing biblical  Tree of Knowledge  serve in this heraldic capacity as well.

Although there's little or no biblical indication concerning the botanical nature of the  forbidden fruit,  the traditional imagery uses (red) apples, possibly because of a medieval joke involving the similarity between the Latin words for "apple"  (malum)  and  "evil"  (malus).  In heraldry, the  Tree of Knowledge  itself may appear either  implicitly  (as in the arms of Gauss)  or with  explicit  biblical references  (Adam and Eve, the tempting Serpent, or both).  One typical example of the "modern" meaning(s) assigned to the symbol can be found in the motivation provided by Geoffrey Masefield to support his early informal proposal   (dated 14 September 1966)  for the coat-of-arms of Wolfson College, Oxford.  Oher examples of  actual  academic arms or logos featuring the  Tree of Knowledge  tend to be of fairly recent origin.  They include Bristol UWE, Tilburg University (2002), etc.

However, in explicit cases at least, the biblical symbol is clearly misunderstood either by would-be heralds or by biblical scholars  (if not both).  This biblical tree,  not to be confused with the equally biblical  Tree of Life,  is better called the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil", the "Tree of Knowledge of Right and Wrong" or the "Tree of Conscience"  (conscience  being opposed to the simpler  awareness  of animals).  The "knowledge of Good and Evil" corresponds to the  loss of innocence,  after which evil things can be done  knowing  that they aren't good.  Arguably, this is a precondition for free will, righteousness and  souls  worth fighting over,  but it's also what makes  sin  possible.  Christian doctrine thus connects the  forbidden fruit  (eaten in defiance of God)  to the  original sin  and the need for  salvation...  We're very far from mere academic or  scientific  knowledge,  aren't we?

The Abel Prize :

The  Niels Henrik Abel Memorial Fund  was established on 1 January 2002, to award a yearly prize for outstanding work in mathematics.  The prize comes with a substantial monetary award similar to Nobel prizes  (there's no Nobel prize in mathematics)  namely 6 million NOK (about 750,000 Euros or $1,000,000).  the first recipients of the  Abel Prize  have been:

Niels Abel  himself produced many brilliant results during a short life spent in poverty:
Non-solvability of quintic equations by radicals, double periodicity of the elliptic functions, etc.
An offer for his first professorship  (at Berlin)  arrived  two days  after he had succombed to tuberculosis.

Abel is one of those rare beings that nature produces barely once a century.
August Leopold Crelle (1780-1856)  1829.
22 papers by Abel appear in the first 3 volumes of "Crelle's Journal", founded in 1826.

Numericana   |   Grave (Froland)   |   David Darling's Encyclopedia   |   The Abel Prize   |   Norwegian IMPACT   |   Rue Abel (Paris XII)


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