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Q&A #4320


Ancient math

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From: Pat Ballew (for Teacher2Teacher Service)
Date: Jul 18, 2000 at 12:14:26
Subject: Re: Ancient math

Pat, As one of those teachers who finds the history of mathematics and mathematical discovery exciting, I sometimes find it hard to answer questions like this because the history seems so integrated with the idea of doing mathematics. As a youngster I loved baseball, and part of that love was knowing the evolution of the game. I read about Connie Mack and Shoeless Joe and Home Run Baker (12 home runs in a single year, a record that would stand forever) and imagined how Bob Feller would pitch to Ty Cobb if they had played together. I think part of my LOVE of the game came from knowing its history, and when I played, I could imagine the big league scouting reports from some anonymous guy in the stands telling the pros about my good glove and quick bat. Then I got interested in math, and through Martin Gardner's Column in Sci Amer I learned about Gauss and Euler (I learned to pronounce it in College by being totally embarrassed, no teacher I ever had mentioned his name) and FLT. For about two years I was sure I was right around the corner from the FLT solution, and my rightful place in the annals of mathematical history. Math history is my history, math people are my people, and it is through their lives I learn my culture. I think every kid who studies math should have an opportunity to hear about the great anecdotal stories, truth and fiction. I don't know if Gauss really said "Father, I fear you have erred", at age three, but I love the story, and I promise you that the story of Galois' death, well told, will have a rush of females going to the library to check out Whom the Gods Loved, not an easy read. I am not an expert on math history, and probably have not given you persuasive reasons, but let me refer you to an expert who can do so. Frank Swetz, who is a wonderful math historian, has co-written a book called LEARN FROM THE MASTERS which I ordered only a day or two ago. You can get it from Amazon or the MAA ( www.maa.org) and I hope it will convince you to continue your worthy goal. And don't forget the Hindu-Arabic mathematicians, and the oriental contributions. When western science and mathematics went into a 700 year slumber, they kept the flame aglow. Good luck and I hope your students find the joy in the history of mathematics that I did. I wish I could have had a teacher take your interest when I was in school. -Pat Ballew, for the Teacher2Teacher service

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