Introducing Mathematicians from History: 1: What’s the Point?


In a new series of blogs for Oxford Home Schooling, one of our maths tutors explores the lives and work of some influential mathematicians.

Introducing Mathematicians from History: 1: What’s the Point?

This series of blogs looks at some famous mathematicians and how their discoveries have contributed to the maths we now learn at Key Stage 3 and GCSE or IGCSE level. Why bother with the history of maths though?

Everyone loves a story

The history of mathematics is full of stories of eccentric mathematicians and the need to solve all sorts of problems in a variety of contexts. Knowing where the mathematics you are learning came from can make learning more enjoyable. I recently asked a university maths lecturer what he thought had made maths interesting to him at school and he said he liked the lessons where the teacher told a story.

All maths is rooted in history

Maths is a subject where new ideas are always built on previous ones. The discoveries of the past are never knocked down but developed and expanded. Discoveries made by the ancient Greeks are still true today.

It shows that all maths has a use

History has shown that even the most obscure and seemingly useless maths will eventually have an application. Einstein couldn’t have proved his theory of relativity without Gauss’ work on the geometry of curved space; computer security systems couldn’t have been developed without the work of various mathematicians on prime numbers.

To inspire the next generation

Even though mathematics is an ancient subject, there are still theorems out there to be proved and new areas to be developed. In 1963 a young boy picked up a book on the history of a particular problem in mathematics. Just over thirty years later that boy, Andrew Wiles, had become arguably the greatest mathematician of our time when he proved Fermat’s Last Theorem (Singh, 1997, Fermat’s Last Theorem).

So let us consider the incredibly brainy, often eccentric, and sometimes downright strange characters who have contributed to the history of mathematics, and in doing so bring what is too often seen as a dry and boring subject to life.

Debby Gill

Tutor

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