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 plausibility. 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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