Hirst prize and lecture

Yesterday the London Mathematical Society held a meeting in St Andrews to celebrate the award of the inaugural Hirst Prize to my colleagues John O’Connor and Edmund Robertson. The prize is named after Thomas A. Hirst, 5th president of the LMS and a keen promoter of science and of education of women, as well as a keen diarist and recorder of the mathematical scene.

The prize is awarded for “original and innovative work in the history of mathematics, which may be in any medium”. In this case it was for the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive.

It is worth saying that this archive was begun by John and Edmund in the early days of the web, and it is still a two-person affair, predating Wikipedia and other sources of knowledge and wisdom. It has had enormous impact on, for example, the teaching of mathematics, both in St Andrews and all over the world: it is much more common now for lecturers to tell their students something about the people who created the mathematics they are learning.

Anyway, the prize carries with it a lectureship, and the inaugural Hirst lecture was delivered to the LMS at yesterday’s meeting by Edmund.

As is LMS custom, there were two lectures. The first, by Mark McCartney, was a lively account of Edmund Whittaker. I owned a copy of Whittaker and Watson for many years; I think I gave it away in my “booksale” when I left Queen Mary three years ago. A beautiful and entertaining lecture about someone who did a lot of mathematics and physics in the first half of his career, including setting up the first “mathematics laboratory” in the university of Edinburgh in 1913, and then turned to more general and controversial topics. The subtitle of the lecture was “Laplace’s equation, silver forks, and Vogue“, and indeed all of these featured in Whittaker’s life. At a certain point Mark showed a photograph of the 1955 St Andrews colloquium; among the people in the photograph was Bernhard Neumann. Peter, who was in the audience, claimed that his mother was there as well (though nobody could spot her), and he and his sisters were exploring Fife.

Edmund gave a beautiful lecture. The title was “History of Mathematics: Some personal thoughts”. His focus was on the fact that hisorians cannot provide us with truth: there are some questions we are unable to settle. Among those he mentioned were these.

  • Was Lagrange French, or (as the Italian Encyclopaedia claims) Italian? He was born in Turin (which was not in Italy at the time since Italy did not exist), though he spent a lot of time in Berlin and Paris. It seems to me that this is the edge of a slippery slope. Nationality is bedevilled both by the fact that people move away from their birthplace and by changes in national boundaries and names of countries.
  • Did Euclid exist? Although there are a number of pictures of him, they were all made long after his time. Given the many styles in the Elements, it is possible that he was a kind of third-century-BCE Bourbaki. The counterargument is that the members of Bourbaki are all well-known in their own right, while none of Team Euclid are even known by name.
  • Did James Gregory actually construct a meridian line in St Andrews? Again all the evidence comes from long after the event, although it is known that he was in communication with people interested in this problem (such as Cassini).
  • What was Nathan Jacobson’s birthday? Official documents give it as 8 September, and he celebrated it on that day, but he claimed that it had been wrongly converted from the Jewish calendar and he was really born on 5 October.
  • What was Newton’s birthday? Famously he was born on Christmas day, but because (unlike most of Europe) Britan had not at the time accepted the Gregorian calendar, it was 4 January in most of the continent. There is also the issue of the year of his birth, since at the time the year in Britain began in March.
  • Did Al-Khwarizmi study Euclid? He worked at the House of Wisdom, where one of his colleagues was engaged on translating Euclid into Arabic, and yet his own geometry has an algebraic rather than axiomatic flavour. Edmund claimed that he might well have known Euclid’s work but decided that he didn’t need it for his own.

We were also told about Charles Whish, an employee of the Honorable East India Company (Edmund was scathing about the adjective), who worked in Madras and found (and published) evidence that Indian mathematics knew a very accurate value for π derived from Madhava’s power series for the inverse tangent. He was ridiculed by his superiors, who regarded the suggestion as “too ridiculous to deserve attention”, and his arguments were only taken up by Indian historians of mathematics after a 100-year gap. I said something about this here.

Another mathematician discussed was Omar Khayyam, who measured the length of the year to extraordinary accuracy. As Edmund said, he was better known as a poet than a mathematician (here Edmund quoted a quatrain from Fitzgerald’s “translation” of the Rubaiyat). But my understanding is that there is no more evidence that Khayyam wrote poetry than that Euclid wrote a geometry textbook!

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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2 Responses to Hirst prize and lecture

  1. Mohan Shrikhande says:

    I liked this posting very much. I have taught courses in history of math and have used the MacTutor web site. I didn’t know until now that it was started by your two colleagues. It is a very valuable source. Thanks for providing a bit of history about it !

  2. Pingback: Beyond Euro-American Mathematics – Study Score Calc

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