From History

History of Mathematics Journal: 2

I am here with another entry from my weekly write-up of topics talked about in my History of Mathematics class. This one is a bit longer:

We started this week with a reading of a few section from chapter two of our book, The History of Mathematics by Roger Cooke, specifically those dealing with the mathematical history of India and the Maya. The mathematical history of India is itself, removed from any external context such as the over-all study of the history of mathematics, incredibly interesting.

One of the oldest cultures in the world the history of Indian mathematics reaches, of course, well into BCE. As is common with mathematics of that time, the math seems to be mostly concerned with geometry and artimetics. In fact, according to Cooke, sometime between 800 to 500 BCE the Sulva Sutras, who’s root words come from measure and cord, a collection of mathematically based verses were inserted into the Vedas. These verses, and the idea that the content probably springing from the maintenance of ¬†altars, are intimately tied to a conversation that we had in class on Tuesday: The importance that culture and religion have on studies, and mathematics in particular.

Professor Bhatnagar brought up the semester he spent at the University of Nizwa in Oman, and the perspective the students there brought to their education, specifically that they came into classes expecting to be able to memorize their way through instead of learning basic concepts and then extrapolating from there to solve here to fore unseen problems. Professor Bhatnagar then posited that there was a good reason for this and someone else from the class spoke up that it could have something to do with the practice of memorizing large section of the Qur’an for recitation, a hypothesis that was quickly seconded by many in the class and was agreed with by our Professor. Of course it does simply end there because, as our Professor quite rightly pointed out, it is also a great honor to be one chosen to do the recitation and because of that the students were not only well practiced in memorization but have a large respect for the method.

There is no reason to stop the speculation on the effect that religion and culture have on mathematics there though, let me spend a second talking about mathematics in the United States. As we spoke about on Thursday after the USA declared its independence from the Untied Kingdom way back in 1774 it was not only in governing that we decided to break away from the British model. We also changed our education system quite a but as well, so much so in fact that there is very little in common with the two systems now only 236 years since independence. The United States university system tends to function on the idea of: If more than one person wants to study it, it is probably worth studying as opposed to a more track based system such as that in the United Kingdom. While I can not say I agree completely with this idea, I am proud to say that I am a product of a system that does, for some reason that eludes even my radically liberalized mind, offer underwater basket weaving as a for-credit course in more than one university.

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History of Mathematics Journal: 1

For my History of Mathematics Course this Semester the Professor is having us write up weekly summaries of what we discuss in class. I have decided to post what I write. Here is the 1st entry.

I found myself in the odd position of missing the second class of the semester and therefore missing the first real lecture of the year, as well as losing my change to gain an insight into how the class was going to be approached. Not that I wasted the time I should have been spending in class adsorbing the material. Instead I found myself in San Francisco at the Joint Mathematics Meetings. The second conference that I have attended and, thankfully, the second at which I presented. It was a radically different experience though as the first was a Graph Theory and Combinatorics conference with approximately 300 attendees, rather a smaller amount than the, at least, 5,500 people who made it to the JMM this year. I would be lying if I said it was not surreal scooting past Ron Rivest in a lecture hall or rubbing shoulders with Donald Knuth, sharing the same air with such luminaries of mathematics reminded once again the importance and gravity of our chosen subject. With my presentation, and the ones that I attended, I remembered the mutating and growing nature that is mathematics which really helps to put the challenge of studying its history in perspective. Also speaking to, and interviewing for my podcast, people like Richard Stanley from M.I.T., Steve Strogatz from Cornell, and Joseph Gallian from Duluth I was able to learn just how much mathematics can change in a short period of time. In the end though it was not all work for me in San Francisco, as I was able to spend a lot of time just talking to other mathematicians near my age. Therefore I was able to revel in the companionship that only the shared knowledge of such an exalted subject can bring.

All of this made the first chapter of the book slightly surreal. I had spent four days immersed in a sea mathematicians wearing name tags so then reading about people of whom we only have the vaguest of grasps bordered on spooky. To then leave the realm of certainty in class to talk about whether numbers were created or discovered was an even greater departure but not an unwelcome one. It is that kind of question, along with how does a child perceive mathematics and what is the intersection of mathematics and art that I feel that most mathematicians tend to avoid because they are so called soft questions. Just as what the History of Mathematics is seen to be. To not ask these questions though is rather obviously a mistake in my mind. As we learn more about the mathematics of the ancients through archeology or finding something someone else missed, we can get a more precise image of the mistakes they made and, more vitally, how they succeeded. Through these stories of achievement and failure we will come to gaze on the story of our discipline and better see where and how to move forward.