Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
One of the defining aspects of the human experience is the awareness of our own mortality. We may not know the answers to some of life’s most mystifying questions, such as the reason for our being or what happens after death, but the one thing that is unmistakably certain is that all life must someday come to an end, including our own. But if you had the chance to know the date of your own death, would you take it? Tales of those who correctly prophesized their own death have decorated history since the dawn of modern man, including Abraham Lincoln, who is said to have dreamed of being assassinated just days before he was fatally shot, and popular talk show host Frank Pastore, who eerily foretold his death on national radio just hours before it actually happened in 2012. However, one prediction by French mathematician Abraham de Moivre stands out from the rest because he systematically calculated his end by using numbers.
De Moivre was born in Vitry-le-François, France on May 26, 1667. He was well-educated and studied physics and mathematics. As an adult, he immigrated to London and began reading and dissecting Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia, which states Newton’s laws of motion and universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Principia is regarded as one of the most important works in the history of science. De Moivre’s first paper, Method of Fluxions, stemmed from Newton’s study of fluxions presented in the text. De Moivre is best known for his work on normal distribution and probability. He published The Doctrine of Chances in 1718, which was the first textbook on probability theory. More morbidly, de Moivre also applied his studies in probability to his work on mortality tables with English astronomer and mathematician Edmond Halley. The two worked together to calculate a person’s lifespan based on death rates, which served as a foundation in calculating premiums for life insurance and annuities.
During the later years of his life, de Moivre became lethargic and started sleeping longer hours. He made note of his sleeping habits and noticed that he was sleeping an extra 15 minutes each night. De Moivre was convinced he could use arithmetic progression to calculate the exact date of his death. The mathematician surmised that he would die on the day that the extra 15 minutes accumulated to 24 hours. According to his calculations, the date of his death would be November 27, 1754. As per his prediction, he died on that day.
Can de Moivre’s formula actually predict death? Or was his timely demise simply a coincidence or a compulsion? His official cause of death was reported as somnolence, or excessive sleepiness. Estimated lifespans can be calculated, but science tells us it’s impossible to predict exactly when an individual is going to die. Some say that when people near death, they become intuitive to their own end. Was this the case with de Moivre? His death prediction remains an enigma, as is the case with others who have predicted their own passing throughout time. Some mysteries, maybe, just aren’t meant to be solved.
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