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

  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

    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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