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Mathematics: a culture of historical inaccuracy?

Earlier this year, back when I somehow managed to find time to write blog posts (sorry!), I wrote a couple of pieces on incorrect but oft-repeated stories in history of mathematics, basically describing some issues and expressing my frustration. These were Apparently Gauss got in this bar fight with Hilbert… and Why do we enjoy maths history misconceptions?

Today Thony Christie wrote on Twitter (as @rmathematicus) with a link to this post by Dennis Des Chene (aka “Scaliger”): On bad anecdotes and good fun. As Thony points out, this is an “excellent piece of maths history myth busting” and I am writing this quick note to commend you to read it.

I have some problems dealing with this sort of anecdote (in this case, the one about Euler’s supposed mathematical proof of the existence of God – you know, from the blog post you just read). Towards the bottom of the post Dennis gives some lessons to apply when dealing with this sort of situation. Though I broadly agree with these, my problem is firstly that this approach tends to paralyse me into inaction. I’ve read 9 sources that say it is true, but what if the 10th debunks it? Better not include it, just in case. (Does excluding good anecdotes – true ones, certainly, but can we be sure? – or stopping to offer qualifications ruin good storytelling?) Here, the blog post gives the original telling in Thiébault’s Souvenirs (1860) and lists sources for the anecdote by authors from de Morgan to du Sautoy. Would I have felt the need to press on and find the debunking? (Perhaps this is a well known case, and a ‘too good to be true’ story, but there are more marginal cases.)

As an example: I was extremely unhappy with the process of writing the Klein article for launch day at The Aperiodical, basically because we hadn’t the time to really search the maths history research literature to back up every aspect of the piece. In retrospect it seems to have been well received but my anxiety-verging-on-paralysis nearly caused it to be abandoned.

A second anxiety is expressed in a comment on that post by Rich Booher.

I think telling false anecdotes is important to avoid in scholarly contexts, but I worry that some of these stories have become important points of reference for educated people and that it is important for students to be acquainted with them. There are dangers to both approaches, and simply prefacing the anecdote with a disclaimer doesn’t work when an anecdote is especially amusing.

I was definitely told the ‘Euler proof of existence of God’ story in a university lecture, and I can’t remember whether this was prefixed with a disclaimer or not. Nevertheless, there are plenty of these anecdotes which you might expect to spark recognition in a room of mathematicians. A mathematics higher education must enable students to become mathematicians. Should students study false historical anecdotes as part of their cultural preparation? And, if so, how do we avoid the good story being remembered without the disclaimer?

One Response to “Mathematics: a culture of historical inaccuracy?”

  1. Tony

    It’s not just mathematics: all disciplines have their myths and stories. Any anecdote is likely to have been, at the very least, embellished. Was Newton really inspired by seeing a falling apple? Did Gauss really sum the integers 1-100 as a small child? (These two have some degree of evidence in their support.)
    In maths, as in life, we should be suspicious of anecdotes but they are part of mathematical culture and our students should hear about them. And our students should also realise that you don’t take everything at face value.


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