My paper entitled “What’s Abelian about abelian groups?” has just been published in the Bulletin of the British Society for History of Mathematics.
The association of names to mathematical concepts and results (the creation of eponyms) is often a curious process. For the case of abelian groups, we will be taken on a quick, guided tour of the life of Niels Henrik Abel, elliptic functions, a curve called the lemniscate, the construction of the regular 17-gon, and a particular class of solvable equations before we can begin to appreciate how Abel’s name was attributed to a concept (groups) not yet invented in his lifetime. Therefore, I will have to address how ‘group theory’ was done before it was even invented. As the story unfolds, indications of a broader development in mathematics in the early nineteenth century will emerge. In that century, large parts of analysis underwent transformations from a predominantly formula-centred approach to a more conceptual one, and our story features important examples of how the processes of generalization functioned.