Tag Archives: history of math

Duel at Dawn

Speaking of Galois, my review of Amir Alexander’s Duel at Dawn is up at BN Review today.  The book draws an interesting connection between the Romantic literary area and the invention of the “romantic” mathematical hero, of whom Galois is obviously the sterling example.  But Alexander commendably reaches past the endlessly-repeated Galois story to cover a lot of material less familiar to readers of pop math; I learned a lot about Abel, Bolyai, D’Alembert, and Cauchy (who was constantly getting rebuked by his deans for teaching epsilons and deltas in first-year calculus!)

The uncollected and very worthwhile David Foster Wallace essay “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama,” which I mention towards the end of the piece, can be found in .pdf here.

Also, writing this review gave me the opportunity to use the word “emo” in print for the first time.  I hope my younger readers will let me know whether my usage is roughly correct.

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Math And: Arielle Saiber on Italian poetry and Italian algebra, Friday, Oct 23 at 4pm

Something to do tomorrow (besides eating the Beef n Brew slice): the Math And… seminar is very pleased to welcome Arielle Saiber from Bowdoin for our Fall 2009 lecture.  Arielle is an Italianist of very broad interests, with academic papers on Italian literature, the early history of algebra and geometry, Dali’s illustrations for Dante, and the polyvalent discourse of electronic music.  Tomorrow there will only be time to unite the first two.

23 Oct 2009, 4pm, Van Vleck B239: Arielle Saiber (Bowdoin, Italian)

Title “Nicollo Tartaglia’s Poetic Solution to the Cubic Equation.”

Niccolo Tartaglia’s (1449-1557) solution to solving cubic equations, which renowned mathematician and physician Girolamo Cardano wanted but Tartaglia resisted, led to one of the first intellectual property cases in Western history. Eventually, Tartaglia agreed to give Cardano what he so desired, but only if the latter promised he would not publish it. Cardano promised, and Tartaglia sent him the solution. Wasting little time, however, Cardano published the solution (along with a ‘general’ solution that he himself developed). Tartaglia was, not surprisingly, furious and began a vicious battle with Cardano’s assistant, Ludovico Ferrari (Cardano refused to engage Tartaglia directly). But vitriolic polemics aside, there is something else rather curious about this ordeal: the solution Tartaglia gave Cardano was encrypted in a poem. This talk looks at the motives behind his “poetic solution” and what it says about the close relationship between ‘poeisis’ and ‘mathesis’ in this period of mathematics’ history.

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19th century “algorithms”

Emmanuel observes in the comments to the last post that the use of “algorithm” in the Felix Klein lecture predates by a few decades the earliest OED cite for the modern sense of that word; but adds, correctly, that it’s not at all clear Klein has the modern sense in mind.

Fortunately, the Cornell collection is fully searchable, and sortable by date!  So one instantly finds that the earliest mention of “algorithm” among the digitized monographs is from J.R. Young’s 1843 text “Theory and solution of algebraical equations of the higher orders”:

in what is clearly its contemporary usage.  No scare quotes, either.  What’s more, only a handful of texts in the Cornell collection predate this one; so this use of “algorithm” could well be a lot older.

I’ve written the OED, as Emmanuel suggested.  Let’s remember to check back in twenty years and see if the entry is changed!


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Human(itie)s, aliens, and autism: Ian Hacking and Elliot Sober at Fluno Center tomorrow

Humanities at Wisconsin are said to be underfunded and demoralized, but you’d never know it from the excellent “What is Human?” symposium the Center for Humanities is holding tomorrow at Fluno Center. At 1:45, Ian Hacking will speak on “Humans, aliens, and autism” — perhaps he’ll expand on some of the material in this 2006 essay from the LRB. Hacking’s two books on the development of probability theory, The Emergence of Probability and The Taming of Chance, are probably the best I’ve read on the history of mathematics; to stay bound to the theme of this post, he is one of the only people writing really humanely about mathematical practice. (The late Thomas Tymoczko was another.)

Speaking at 11:15 is our own Elliot Sober, who is that most powerful of creatures, a philosopher who knows Bayes’ Theorem. (See also: Adam Elga, K. Anthony Appiah.) Sober’s title is TBA, but he may well talk about (or, more likely, against) the “design argument” against Darwinism. (He’s definitely giving a talk on that subject at 7:30 this Thursday night, in 1315 Chemistry.) A very vulgar version of the design argument looks like this. The probability that intelligent life would arise, if there were no divine guidance, is nonzero but spectacularly small. The probability that intelligent life would arise, if a divine being created it, is 1. Now Bayes says you should think that divine origin of human life is very likely, even if it was very unlikely in your prior. Sober’s new book, Evidence and Evolution, takes on the design argument and its many more sophisticated variants, and more generally tries to work out what we mean by “evidence” about the origins of life. Bayes flies everywhere.

Sober is also credited with the following joke:

A boy is about to go on his first date, and is nervous about what to talk about. He asks his father for advice. The father replies: “My son, there are three subjects that always work. These are food, family, and philosophy.”

The boy picks up his date and they go to a soda fountain. Ice cream sodas in front of them, they stare at each other for a long time, as the boy’s nervousness builds. He remembers his father’s advice, and chooses the first topic. He asks the girl: “Do you like potato pancakes?” She says “No,” and the silence returns.

After a few more uncomfortable minutes, the boy thinks of his father’s suggestion and turns to the second item on the list. He asks, “Do you have a brother?” Again, the girl says “No” and there is silence once again.

The boy then plays his last card. He thinks of his father’s advice and asks the girl the following question: “If you had a brother, would he like potato pancakes?”

(This philosophy joke, along with many others, appears here.)

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