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Origin of math

Date: 6 Jan 1995 11:59:49 -0500
From: Teresa Wong
Subject: (none)

To Dr. Math:

        Please respond to the following questions as soon as possible.  I
have a deadline to meet.

1.   Where did math originate from?

2.   Who thought of the term math?

3.   When did people decide to have math as a class in school?
4.   Was the subject math an accident or did someone sit down and 
actually think about it?

5.   Where did the word polygon come from?

                                                Thank you very much

Date: 6 Jan 1995 15:52:32 -0500
From: Anonymous
Subject: Re: No Subject

Hi Theresa!

      Some of the other math doctors may be able to answer your other
questions, but I can help you with #3, where the word math came from:
 According to my math history book ("A History of Mathematics", by 
Carl Boyer), Pythagoras is supposed to have come up with the word 
Mathematics, which means "that which is learned."  Yes--that's the 
Pythagoras of the Pythagorean Theorem, which, incidentally, he didn't 
make up.  He was the head of a kind of math cult/religion/community/
school in what is now Italy, about 2500 years ago.  

                                 Elizabeth, a math doctor

Date: 6 Jan 1995 22:31:31 -0500
From: Dr. Ken
Subject: Re: your mail

Hello there Teresa!

I'll just go through and handle your questions one-by-one.

> 1.   Where did math originate from?

This really depends on how you define the word math.  My favorite
definition, which I got from a fellow math-geek in high school, is that
mathematics is "the study of patterns."  If this is your definition, then
every creature on earth practices mathematics, and mathematics began 
when life began.  Finding and predicting patterns is essential to survival:
mating cycles, feeding cycles, the seasons, and countless other patterns
must be understood.

However, most people don't like this answer, and they think that it's kind
of a copout answer.  So perhaps you could say that math began when 
people started to count things around them, and to notice that no matter 
how you rearrange five stones, you'll always have those same five stones, 
not six or four.  However, this seems like kind of an arbitrary starting 
point to me, and I'd prefer to say that math is just something that people 
do naturally, and have been doing naturally ever since people started 
doing their thing.

Oh, by the way, many people say that the modern system of mathematics 
(with proofs and things like that) was begun by Thales of Miletus, who 
lived from 624 B.C. to 548 B.C.  He proved that the diameter of a circle 
divides the circle into two equal parts.  I think that it took a strong kind 
of genius to recognize that there could be some kind of reason to prove 
such a seemingly obvious statement.

> 2.   Who thought of the term math?

I trust you already got the response on this one.

> 3.   When did people decide to have math as a class in school?

I think that it's kind of the other way around: people created schools so
that they could teach each other things like math, reading, and all those
other great things you do in schools.  Until fairly recently, schools were
seen by many people as the privilege of only the upper class citizens, 
and not a place to teach all children what they'd have to know in order 
to survive.  So I don't think people taught math in schools because they
thought people would have to know how to add, and how to find the area 
of a rhombus, they taught it because people wanted to enlighten themselves.

However, a lot of early math was just the study of how to measure things,
and how to trade goods with each other.  So I guess in this sense, math 
was sometimes seen as a necessary tool.

I guess the upshot of my answer is that I just don't know.  Being a
mathematician, I can't imagine that someone planning a school 
curriculum could leave out mathematics, so I just kind of think it was 
there from the beginning.  However, school as we know it is a relatively 
recent phenomenon, and math education came well before our schools.

> 4.   Was the subject math an accident or did someone sit down and 
> actually think about it?

Lots of people sit down and actually think about it, myself included.  

Seriously, though, math is a huge body that is constantly created by 
many people.  The roots of mathematics can probably be traced not to a 
single person, but to various cultures who started to notice patterns 
around them.

> 5.   Where did the word polygon come from?

Somebody asked this question of us before, and one of us did the research
and formulated a splendid answer, which I'd like to forward to you.
Unfortunately, I don't have that answer available to me right now, but 
we'll get it to you pretty soon.

Thanks for the questions!

-Ken "Dr." Math
Associated Topics:
Middle School History/Biography

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