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  Key Questions: Public Support of Mathematics


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Why should the public support mathematics? What do we do that is important?

Howard Stein, Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago in a letter to the president of the University of Rochester regarding their decision to cut back the math program:

"Do you and your colleagues--and the president, provost, and dean--not realize that mathematics is one of the key enterprises of modern science, and indeed of modern culture? The restructuring plan itself bears the name--grimly ironic, it seems to me--of "The Rochester Renaissance Plan." The original Renaissance is commonly associated with a wonderful period in the history of art; but it was in fact called a renaissance to signalize the "revival of learning." The revival in question was based upon the rediscovery, and the propagation, of the learning of classical antiquity. Not least in the learning that was revived was mathematics; in particular, it was the impetus from the rediscovered mathematics of the Greeks that led both to some of the technical developments in art that revolutionized painting (such painters as Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci were geometers of considerable stature), and to the ideas that, a century or so later, revolutionized philosophy and natural science.

Well, you will perhaps say, that's all very well, but it's a pretty pedantic point. (To be sure, it is history; and history is another discipline that your "renaissance" plan seems to think not very important.) However, the point I wish to make is that mathematics ever since the Renaissance has been critical to the development of human thought (in philosophers from Descartes through Newton, Leibniz, Kant, down to Poincare, Russell, Whitehead, Goedel, and--but I will not trouble you with contemporary names); and to the development of science in particular. Our own time is certainly not one of stagnation in this field: a great mathematical achievement was featured news in The New York Times in the year just past. Moreover, after a period in which the disciplines were somewhat alienated from one another, we have recently been experiencing a very remarkable mutual fertilization between mathematics, on the one hand, and physics on the other--in which very deep geometrical results have been found to have bearings upon very deep questions in physics, and, conversely, physical theories have inspired geometrical discoveries. What kind of university is it, then, that can aspire, as yours does, to be an "elite" institution--with some emphasis upon technical fields, especially physics-and that yet sees no importance in making available to its students contact with active mathematical research? "

Professor Stein is also a member of the Committee on the Conceptual Foundations of Science and the College, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


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