Student sleuths on the case

Solving a good mystery often requires finding the right sleuth. Such was the case last summer for math Professor Stephen Bean and economics and business Professor Santhi Hejeebu.

Bean recently became curious about the history of a famous formula called the gamma function. He wondered why Leonhard Euler developed the unusual function, but found its history summed up in one vague sentence. He wanted to research the question and realized he could use the help of a student with an interest in both math and history.

Hejeebu, meanwhile, was curious about anecdotal accounts claiming prominent positions in powerful 18th-century English companies were bought and sold, rather than awarded on merit. Her expertise centers on the history of corporations, including the first multinational corporation, the English East India Company. She wanted to find a student to help her investigate the company’s labor market systematically. While her research question fell into the realm of economics, Hejeebu knew it would take a special person to be able to scan periodicals from the period every day for 10 weeks straight.

“Unless you have the imagination to put yourself in that time and place, it’s a real uphill battle,” says Hejeebu. “The prose is turgid, thick, roundabout—not 21st-century business talk.”

She recruited junior Alison Scharmota, an English major with no economics background but a strong interest in 18th-century literature.

“I really enjoy history and I wanted to stop and read, but I knew I couldn’t,” she says. This was especially a problem when reading periodicals from 1776.

Scharmota, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, found few references to the East India Company but discovered much buying and selling of jobs in West Indian plantations, in Parliament, and in smaller firms. These surprising findings will move the research forward.

“If ever I endeavor to write a dissertation, this will be very good practice,” she says.

Bean found his detective in senior Evan Eakins, a dual-major in math and classical studies. Eakins was well-versed in Greek and in math, but to follow a trail of 18th century correspondence, he first needed to learn Latin, a little French, and brush up on his rusty German. Eakins, who is from Renton, Wash., thinks he has unraveled the mystery of the gamma function. He has not only established a rationale for Euler’s development of the idea, but also placed it within the context of renaissance European mathematicians and intellectuals whose ideas were flowing freely. “Unless we’re missing something, this hasn’t been written about before,” says Bean.

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