Throughout the semester we have studied numerous mathematicians in MTH 495. We have learned about mathematicians from ancient Greece to China, and have been led through the centuries by great mathematical discoveries. As we learned about these great thinkers, it struck me how much “math” encompasses, and the contrast of this vastness to the small scope the term evokes in the minds of most people today.
By nature, humans want to understand the world around them. Mathematics is a language the world speaks that humans can understand. Math is the tool that humans use to investigate the nature of the world, though it is rarely taught as so in today’s Western society.
To many people today, math is seen as numbers, a calculator, and equations. It is seen as a requirement, a monotonous lecture, and as an overrated skill. Math has been parsed off from what it initially was, and, in a sense, what we consider “math” today is more confined that it ever has been.
Archimedes was a mathematician. He was also a physicist, an engineer, an inventor, and an astronomer. Omar Khayyam was a mathematician, a philosopher, an astronomer, and a poet. Brahmagupta is considered a mathematician and an astronomer, but his texts were composed in elliptic verse, which shows a poetic intellect in the man as well. Rene Descartes was a mathematician, a great philosopher, and a writer. These great men are considered mathematicians, and in that overarching term lay discoveries in optics (Decartes), weaponry (Archimedes), a calendar that is more accurate than the one used today (Omar Khayyam), hydrostatics (Archimedes), and so much more.
In their day, what were the labels put on these men? Were they identified as contributing to each of the disciplines mentioned above, were all of their discoveries considered mathematical discoveries, or were there few labels used at all? Why do we limit math as it is today, so early on? In grade school and even high school, math is taught separate from astronomy. Separate from the other sciences as well, in most cases. Math might be brought up in a physics class, but rarely is it explained why the formulas work the way they do, why we can put numbers and equations to a natural phenomenon. Perhaps more tragically, in high school I can’t remember more than a handful of times in a math class where any other discipline was brought up to help me understand and appreciate why I was learning what was taught. Students lose interest in math without even gaining the slightest understanding of its importance in the world.
All of the men I mentioned were mathematicians, but they were also big thinkers who wanted to understand the world. They did this through math, but also though philosophy, physics, and astronomy. These disciplines are ones that frequently come to people’s minds when the question of “What discipline seeks to understand the world, and human’s place in it?” It is a tragedy that math, the foundation of physics and astronomy, and a sister to philosophy, would rarely be unveiled as an answer to many today.
“Mathematics is the queen of sciences and number theory is the queen of mathematics. She often condescends to render service to astronomy and other natural sciences, but in all relations she is entitled to the first rank.”-Carl Friedrich Gauss