George Gherverghese Joseph was born in Kerala, southern India, and lived in India for nine years. His family then moved to Mombasa in Kenya, where he received his schooling. He studied at the University of Leicester, then worked for six years in Kenya before returning to pursue his postgraduate studies at the University of Manchester. At present, he holds appointments at the University of Manchester and the University of Toronto. He spends about three months every year in Kerala conducting research on the history of mathematics in that area.
Joseph's teaching and research have ranged over a broad spectrum of studies in applied mathematics and statistics, including multivariate analysis, mathematical programming, and demography. In 2000, he qualified in law and was called to the Bar of the Middle Temple, London.
Joseph's publications include four books: Women at Work: The British Experience (1983), The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics (1991, 2000), Multicultural Mathematics: Teaching Mathematics from a Global Perspective (with David Nelson and Julian Williams, 1993), and George Joseph: The Life and Times of a Kerala Christian Nationalist (2003). He is preparing a third edition of The Crest of the Peacock.
Ivars Peterson: Given your own background in mathematics and statistics, what got you interested in the history of mathematics?
George Joseph: I think it goes back to quite an early time, before I started teaching at the university. I used to be a schoolteacher in Kenya. This was around the time when there was an attempt at integrating the children in the schools. Previous to that, in colonial times, you had children of each particular race being taught in a separate school. We were trying to bring them all together into one integrated school. Particularly the African children didn't have the advantages that children from the other ethnic backgrounds had. We were faced with a situation where we knew that if we were not careful we'd find a lot of the children being left behind in the lower forms. We started thinking about how to make mathematics, particularly for children who were just entering secondary school, more interesting and more relevant. We introduced ideas from new maths and ideas from history. That was the starting point of my interest in history. Once I got interested, there was this issue of what different cultures and different traditions have contributed to mathematics.
IP: In those early days, was it difficult to find sources of information on the history of mathematics in different cultures?
GJ: A lot of the sources I looked up had hardly any coverage at all of what is now described as ethnomathematics. Also I found the neglect of particular traditions very interesting because of the politics of the writing of the history of mathematics.
IP: How would you characterize your journey from schoolteacher in Kenya to where you are now?
GJ: Though my basic training was in mathematics, a lot of my teaching related to mathematical statistics. For part of the time, I was in a department of econometrics. It's only over the last 15 or 20 years that I could develop my interests in history. It began as a side interest in relation to how that history could be useful in teaching mathematics. That was my starting point.
IP: How did your work on the Indian origins of certain infinite series and their transmission to Europe come about?
GJ: A few years ago, I met a maths educator, Dennis Almeida, at a conference in South Africa. He was teaching at the University of Exeter at the time. He had seen my suggestion of the possibility of transmissions of some ideas on mathematical series from India to Europe, possibly through the agency of the Jesuits. He was interested in developing those ideas, so we got together.
IP: What about transmissions in the opposite direction?
GJ: The interesting thing about our study is that when you come to the medieval period the type of research that has been done is very much what the Jesuits took from Europe to China. There's a fair amount of work on that.
IP: If there were one particular document (or a handful of documents) that you could somehow find, what would it be?
GJ: What I would love to see is something approaching the type of situation that exists in transmissions of ideas from India to the Islamic world or from the Islamic world to Europe. But I should doubt very much whether one would get that, for various reasons.
IP. You mention different styles of doing mathematics in the introduction to your book The Crest of the Peacock, citing the work of Ramanujan as an example.
GJ. Until I started reading history, I didn't realize that I had always thought of mathematical creativity written in the framework of the Greek method of proof, of demonstration. It was particularly Ramanujan, who for the first time highlighted for me that some great discoveries in mathematics did not involve any form of the Greek style of doing it.
IP. What got you to pursue an interest in law in recent years?
GJ: I always wanted to, as break from my normal work, to write a biography of my grandfather. He was very closely associated with Gandhi and others in the nationalist struggle. The point was that he came from the south; he was a Christian. He didn’t have the characteristics that you normally associate with nationalist leaders. He did a degree in philosophy and then became a lawyer in a particular place called the Middle Temple, London. That's where he qualified.
IP. You're also working on the third edition of your book.
GJ. I've been doing that for a few months.
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