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Posts Tagged "history of mathematics"

Roots of Unity

Look Ma, No Zero!

Babylonian numerals are surprisingly easy to decipher. Image: public domain, via sugarfish and Wikimedia Commons.

As I told my class on Thursday, the theme of the first week of our math history course was “easy algebra is hard in base 60.” We started the semester in ancient Mesopotamia, trying to understand Babylonian* mathematical notation and decipher Plimpton 322, an enigmatic tablet from about 1800 BCE. The Babylonian number system uses [...]

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Roots of Unity

What Is the Goal of a Math History Class?

An illustration from Oliver Byrne's 1847 edition of Euclid's Elements. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ll be teaching a math history class for the first time this semester. I’m excited to be teaching it, but I’ve noticed that preparing for this class has been very different from preparing for other classes I’ve taught, which have all been math content courses. I know how to teach a math content course. I [...]

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Roots of Unity

What’s the Deal with Euclid’s Fourth Postulate?

An illustration from Oliver Byrne's 1847 edition of Euclid's Elements. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In February, I wrote about Euclid’s parallel postulate, the black sheep of the big, happy family of definitions, postulates, and axioms that make up the foundations of Euclidean geometry. I included the text of the five postulates, from Thomas Heath’s translation of Euclid’s Elements: “Let the following be postulated: 1) To draw a straight line [...]

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Roots of Unity

The Math Wars, Lewis Carroll Style

Lewis Carroll in 1863, photographed by Oscar Gustave Rejlander. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1879, Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, published an odd little book called Euclid and his Modern Rivals (available for free at the Internet Archive). Though it takes the form of a play, it is a defense of Euclid’s Elements as the best textbook for geometry. Carroll’s introduction lays out his purpose and why [...]

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