Q&A #3733

Why History of Maths?

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From: Pat Ballew (for Teacher2Teacher Service)
Date: Apr 17, 2000 at 18:10:38
Subject: Re: Why History of Maths?

I am  sure I cannot give you all the reasons, or perhaps even the best
reason, but I can think of one very good one.
   When I was a kid, two of the things I liked a lot were mathematics and
basketball.  When I watched basketball on TV, or read about it in the news,
they talked about the history of the game, and the players.  By age 12 I am
sure I knew who invented the game, the names of some of the great players in
previous generations, teams that had won NCAA championships, and all of this
seemed to occur as a natural part of my interest in the game; I was not
learning about HISTORY, I was learning about basketball.
  My mathematics came almost totally at school until I was about 11 or 12.
It consisted of memorizing rules for operations and doing calculations.  I
was lucky, I memorized well and worked fast, and was thus rewarded as a GOOD
student.... then one day in the library, I stumbled across a book that had
some mathematical games and recreational math problems... they talked about
where they came from, who had discovered which parts, and I was fascinated
that there were big questions that big people had not been able to answer.
  I think I got really hooked on the history of math when I read "Mathematics
for the Million" by Lancelot Hogabin. It explained about early numeration
systems and the development of number systems, sexgesimal and decimal, and
how the discovery of zero might have come about.  I was transfixed... how
could they do math without zero... In my youth I assumed there had ALWAYS
been a zero... and yet it was one of the last...
  Outside of school, I learned about Gauss, Fermat and his "Last Problem" and
realized there were great unsolved (at that time FLT was still unsolved)
problems that I could understand..  I spent months SURE that I was just
around the corner from the breakthrough to solve this and be FAMOUS, and
along the way I learned more about the problem, and other problems, and other
mathematicians who had made discoveries.
   My study of history helped me understand that math is a continuous growth
process, and helped me to understand the nature of proof, and of

  I never teach my students math history, but I do tell them about Gauss and
Euler; the myths and the true stories.  And if I introduce a concept and I
know when it was discovered, or by whom, or what the story is, I share it as
part of the waft to build the fabric of mathematics... And I assure you that
when I tell them about the death of Galois, five girls will go to check out
his history in the library.

   These people are MY history, their stories are MY culture, and I share it,
not because I want my students to know about history, but because I want them
to know about math.

Good luck, and I hope this little history about MY experience may help you
find a way to bring the stories of math to your students.

 -Pat Ballew, for the Teacher2Teacher service

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