Charles Albert Noble

Born: 14 August 1867 in Soquel, Santa Cruz, California, USA
Died: 7 May 1962 in Berkeley, California, USA

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Charles Noble's parents were Augustus Noble and Joanna Shaw. Augustus Noble's parents were English and had sailed to the United States in 1820. They settled in Baltimore, Maryland, and there Augustus Noble was born on 13 December 1823. He left school at the age of 13 years and worked in a grocery store and crockery store for three years and then served an apprenticeship of four years as a cooper. Hearing of the gold rush to California, he sailed from Boston going round Cape Horn. He worked in Sacramento where he opened a business as a cooper. Making a lot of money, he returned to Boston, where he married Johanna Shaw in 1852. Joanna Maynard Shaw was born in December 1825 in Salem, Essex, Massachusetts. Having lost most of his money in Boston, Augustus returned to California with Johanna shortly after their marriage. Making money in San Francisco with his trade as a cooper, he went to Soquel in 1856 and invested his small fortune in the purchase of a ranch. Augustus and Johanna Noble had six children, five sons and one daughter. Charles had four brothers George (born about 1857), Edward (born about 1859), Frederick (born about 1860) and Walter (born about 1868). His sister, Charlotte, was the oldest of all the children born in San Francisco in 1854.

As a young boy, Charles Noble lived on the ranch at Soquel but soon developed a dislike of farming. To prepare for university he went to live with his sister Charlotte in San Francisco. She had married Yeats Cunningham Lawson in 1885, and they lived in San Francisco where Yeats was assistant auditor of the Wells Fargo Company. Noble was able to complete his high school education in San Francisco and then he entered the University of California. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1889 and was appointed as a Teacher of Mathematics at Oakland High School soon after graduation. He only taught at Oakland High School for a year before, in 1890, he moved to San Francisco Boys High School where he was appointed as a Teacher of Mathematics and English. He taught at this school for three years. One of his pupils wrote later [3]:-

Happily I was one of his students (in high school). Already I had begun to wonder at the separateness of the various types of mathematics to which I had been exposed. At once my new teacher began to relate them. And a life-long friendship grew. Some of the girls made eyes (he was handsome, dark-haired, straight and trim). But for him teaching was strictly business - a human business that stirred my enthusiasm.
In 1893 Noble decided that he wanted to undertake research in mathematics for a doctorate. At this time, it was almost impossible to study for a Ph.D. in the United States and American students had a tradition of going to Germany to undertake research. The position of universities in the United States was clearly stated by Simon Newcomb in a letter to Felix Klein in 1888:-
We have indeed several hundred so-called colleges but I doubt that if one half of the professors of mathematics in them could tell what a determinant is. All they want in their professors is an elementary knowledge of the branches they teach and the practical ability to manage a class of boys, among whom many will be unruly.
Noble went to the University of Göttingen in 1893 and he undertook research there for three years advised by David Hilbert and Felix Klein. He published a paper based on the research he was undertaking in 1896. This paper was Lösung der Randwertaufgabe für eine ebene Randcurve mit stückweise stetig sich ändernder Tangente und ohne Spitzen (Solution of the boundary value problem for a plane boundary curve with piecewise continuously varying tangents and without cusps). Returning from Germany in 1896, he went back to the University of California where he was employed as a Fellow in Mathematics. After a year he was promoted to Instructor in mathematics. He submitted his 77-page thesis Eine neue Methode in der Variationsrechnung to the University of Göttingen in 1901 and had an oral examination on 14 May of that year. At the University of California at Berkeley he was promoted to assistant professor, then to associate professor.

On 13 March 1903 a marriage licence was issued for Charles A Noble, aged 21, of 2311 California Street, San Francisco and Florence N Coleman, aged 18, of 1834 California Street, San Francisco. They had one son, also named Charles Albert Noble. On 30 September 1905, Noble read his paper Note on loxodromes before the San Francisco Section of the American Mathematical Society. It was published in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society in 1905. He writes as an introduction:-

A loxodrome is a curve on a surface of revolution which meets the meridians at a constant angle. If the meridians and the parallels of latitude on such a surface can be so selected as to constitute a network of similar infinitesimal rectangles, the diagonals of these rectangles will give loxodromes.
Noble was very interested in school education and he inspected schools for the University of California. On 18 April 1906 a major earthquake struck California causing widespread damage in San Francisco, San Jose, Salinas, and Santa Rosa. At the time the earthquake struck, Noble was in Marin and Sonoma counties inspecting schools. He took a sabbatical year in 1906-07 when, together with his wife and young son, he went to Germany. He visited the schools of Göttingen and Munich and, while in Göttingen, attended lectures by David Hilbert. In September 1907 he attended the Dresden meeting of the German Mathematical Society. He reported on this meeting in the paper The Dresden meeting of the Deutsche Mathematiker-Vereinigung published in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society in 1907. We give a short extract at THIS LINK.

On 14 August 1907 Noble was in Zurich when he submitted his paper Singular points of a simple kind of differential equation of the second order to the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. He was back in San Francisco by 28 September when he read the paper before the San Francisco Section of the American Mathematical Society. Noble gives the following introduction:-

In a series of four memoirs in the 'Journal de Mathématiques', Poincaré has, among other things, discussed the topology of curves defined by ordinary differential equations of a simple character. In a recent course of lectures Hilbert laid considerable stress on the importance of these results and exhibited an elegant method for obtaining them in the case of a differential equation of the form dy/dx = (cx + dy)/(ax + by). In the following paper I have shown how the same method can be used for an ordinary differential equation of the second order.
In 1909 the Nobles asked the architect William Knowles to build a house for them at 2224 Piedmont Avenue, Berkeley. It was built by the firm of Kidder and McCullough [6]:-
The house was constructed during the Berkeley building boom of the early twentieth century along with its neighbours at 2222 Piedmont (1908) and 2232 Piedmont Avenue (1909).
During the rest of his working life, Noble had a short walk north from his home across Strawberry Creek and down South Drive to Wheeler Hall or other academic buildings.

Among the papers Noble published, after the ones we mentioned above, were Characteristics of two partial differential equations of order one (1911) and Retention of a salt solution in a tank of flowing water (1922). In 1926 Noble was again in Germany learning about recent changes in the Germany methods of teaching mathematics [4]:-

During three and a half weeks of the summer of 1926, I visited mathematics classes in Göttingen, Berlin, Dresden, Stuttgart, and Hamburg. This brief time sufficed to give certain impressions as to personality of a considerable number of teachers, their methods of teaching, and its effectiveness. These teachers, always well trained, were nearly always men and women of good presence and pleasing personality who had the confidence of their pupils, with whom the relation was rooted in the teacher's desire to be helpful. I saw no provision in any class for the separation, into different sections, of pupils of differing ability, as is done in English schools. While the better pupils are stimulated by the offer of more difficult tasks, the 'Arbeitsgemeinschaft' provides in the later years the fuller opportunity for gifted pupils. In it pupils who show especial interest in some subject of the curriculum may, under the informal guidance of a teacher, widen their knowledge and test their ability. Two factors which contribute to the excellence of the training in German schools are that mathematics is taught in close touch with physics, frequently by the same teacher, and, secondly, that geometrical drawing is taught through-out the entire nine years.
You can read the mathematics syllabus which had been introduced into Prussian Secondary Schools in April 1925. We give Noble's version of the Mathematics part of that syllabus for pupils between the ages of 12 and 18 at THIS LINK.

In 1920 Earle Raymond Hedrick was appointed professor of mathematics, and head of department, at the University of California at Los Angeles. Hedrick, like Noble, had studied in Germany and was fluent in German. Noble and Hedrick translated Felix Klein's Elementary mathematics from an advanced standpoint: Arithmetic, algebra, analysis into English and published the book in 1932. They also translated the second volume, Elementary mathematics from an advanced standpoint: Geometry, and their English translation was published in 1939. You can read their translation of Klein's 1908 Preface to the First Edition at THIS LINK.

Noble acted as Chairman of the Mathematics Department, University of California, Berkeley, during 1933-1934. He retired in 1937 and at this time he was made Professor Emeritus. When the United States entered World War II, many of the mathematics staff at the University of California were called to undertake war service at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds or at the Pentagon. Noble returned to teaching at the University to help out but donated his services without seeking recompense. In 1947 Florence, Noble's wife, died. He employed a cook and a chauffeur/gardener and, after his wife's death, rented space in his home at 2224 Piedmont Avenue to at least one male student. In the 1950s Noble was fully retired but still had an office at 456 Wheeler Hall.

As to Noble's character and hobbies we quote from [3]:-

Charles Noble was a person of great charm. He grew up in an uncrowded society, of which he preserved the virtues. At once the stranger would feel at home in his presence. He loved the mountains of California. As a youth, he and his companions would tramp from Berkeley to the top of Mount Diablo, and back again next day. In the late nineties he made pack trips with the Sierra Club successively from north to south in the high mountains. Although severe arthritis forced him to discontinue these extended activities, he continued to enjoy with his friends the lodge of the Sierra Ski Club in winter and in July the tent camp on its forty acres of forest and flowers. The picture of Charles Noble will be found in the group photograph of the charter members of the Faculty Club. He was also a founding father of the Kosmos Club. To give of himself was his nature. For more than one generation he and old friends would meet for Thursday lunch at the University Club in San Francisco. The pre-Christmas gathering at his home was a notable occasion, because the friends of his youth were friends for life. He continued, however, to absorb new ones, some from among younger colleagues and from among our graduate students of mathematics. He added much to the happiness of these last during the time of their advanced study, and celebrated gaily with them their attainment of the Ph.D. degree. Friends, old and new, would come to his house in the late afternoons, to join him in anecdote, argument, and jollity.
The Report [6] explains what happened to Noble's house after his death:-
In 1962, the year that Professor Noble died, his son [Charles A Noble Jr] sold the house to the University for $91,500. It was the last house on the block to pass from private hands into University ownership. By that year, the adjacent houses - 2222 and 2234 Piedmont Avenue - were already being used as offices, so acquisition of the Noble home would have filled in the remaining gap in University property ownership of the buildings on the block. It appears that the house was converted to offices soon after it was purchased by the University.
In fact the house became The Center for the Study of Law and Society in 1963 and by 1968 the Institute for International Studies also had offices in the house.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

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Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor

  1. Charles A Noble attends the 1907 meeting of the DMV
  2. German school syllabus 1925
  3. Felix Klein's Elementary Mathematics

Other Web sites
  1. Mathematical Genealogy Project
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