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Marin Mersenne: 17th century facilitator

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Callie JonesMarin Mersenne was born 425 years ago on 8 September 1588, near Oizé, France. He is probably best known for his formula to generate prime numbers based on what we now call Mersenne numbers. And you may have come across the Mersenne Twister, a random number generator named for him and used in simulating complex biochemical pathways, genome coalescence and cellular biology.

Mersenne also played a big role in publicising and disseminating the work of some of the greatest thinkers of his age before the advent of scientific journals.

Mersenne was destined for a career in the church and entered the Order of the Minims in Paris in 1611. During the early 1620s he wrote mainly on religious topics, staunchly opposing attacks by innovators in natural philosophy such as Galileo. But within a decade he became one of Galileo’s most ardent supporters.

Mathematics was the area Mersenne studied in greatest depth, believing that without it no science was possible. He also had a strong interest in music, acoustics, astronomy and optics. Because of his religious vocation Mersenne was not considered a threat by traditional church leaders.

He was able to travel extensively and also arranged meetings in Paris where scholars from all around Europe would gather to read and review scientific papers, exchange contacts and plan experiments and other work. This became known as the Académie Parisiensis or sometimes the Académie Mersenne and was an important forerunner of the Académie des Sciences.

After Mersenne's death on 1 September 1648, letters from 78 correspondents, including Galileo, Pascal and Descartes, and others from as far away as Constantinople, were found among his belongings. These letters read like an international review of science in the early 17th century. They were later published in several volumes.

Mersenne was aware of all the science that was going on, what all the scientists were doing, and only wanted for them all to work together in advancing science.

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