Wednesday, July 17, 2019

A History of Mathematics: From Mesopotamia to Modernity

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This book has its origin in notes which I compiled for a course on the history of mathematics at King’s College London, taught for many years before we parted company. My major change in outlook (which is responsible for its form) dates back to a day ten years ago at the University of Warwick, when I was comparing notes on teaching with the late David Fowler. He explained his own history of mathematics course to me; as one might expect, it was detailed, scholarly, and encouraged students to do research of their own, particularly on the Greeks. I told him that I gave what I hoped was a critical account of the whole history of mathematics in a series of lectures, trying to go beyond what they would find in a textbook. David was scornful. ‘What’, he said, ‘do you mean that you stand up in front of those students and tell stories?’ I had to acknowledge that I did.

David’s approach meant that students should be taught from the start not to accept any story at face value, and to be interested in questions rather than narrative. It’s certainly desirable as regards the Greeks, and it’s a good approach in general, even if it may sometimes seem too difficult and too purist. I hope he would not be too hard on my attempts at a compromise. The aims of the book in this, its ultimate form, are set out in the introduction; briefly, I hope to introduce students to the history, or histories of mathematics as constructions which we make to explain the texts which we have, and to relate them to our own ideas. Such constructions are often controversial, and always provisional; but that is the nature of history.

List of figures
Picture Credits
1. Babylonian mathematics
2. Greeks and ‘origins’
3. Greeks, practical and theoretical
4. Chinese mathematics
5. Islam, neglect and discovery
6. Understanding the ‘scientific revolution’
7. The calculus
8. Geometries and space
9. Modernity and its anxieties
10. A chaotic end?

Author Details
"Luke Hodgkin"

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