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Is Mathematics Inevitable? A Miscellany

Mathematical Association of America
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In case you were wondering, the answer is “yes.” At least according to Nathan Altshiller Court, who argues in Mathematics in Fun and in Earnest (1958) that mathematics as we know it is inevitable in the sense that if Gauss, for instance, had not existed, someone else would have made his discoveries instead, and at about the same time. Court supports this claim with examples of the contemporaneous discovery of important mathematical results by multiple scholars working independently. The best-known example of this phenomenon is the near-simultaneous discovery of calculus by Newton and Leibniz (and possibly Fermat as well).

An excerpt from Court’s book is one of 27 essays included in Is Mathematics Inevitable? A Miscellany, an enjoyable and often illuminating collection of texts assembled by Underwood Dudley. Most selections are accompanied by introductions and concluding remarks and biographical notes written by Dudley, who does not necessarily agree with the authors whose essays he has chosen: for instance he considers the inevitability of mathematics to be an inherently hypothetical question whose answer will never be known.

These essays do not have a common theme, other than that of mathematics: the editor himself noted in the preface that the book might better be titled “Some Mathematical Stuff” and that his selection is not composed entirely of chart-toppers on the Hit Parade of Mathematical Essays, should such a list actually exist. Dudley ’s main criteria seem to be that the essay be on an interesting topic and be well-written. Many also have the quality of raising issues far beyond the narrow focus suggested at their outset.

Dudley has included essays on a broad range of topics, from why you always seem to be in the longest line at the supermarket to how mathematics was taught (if at all) in 18th-century America . The amount of mathematical knowledge required to follow the essays also varies widely, from none to somewhat formidable. Since each essay is self-contained, the end result is that there’s something to interest nearly anyone in Is Mathematics Inevitable, at least as long as “anyone” has at least some interest in matters mathematical.

Underwood Dudley received his PhD from the University of Michigan and taught mathematics for two years at Ohio State University followed by 37 years at DePauw University (1967-2004). He won the Trevor Evans Award for Expository Writing from the Mathematics Association of American in 1996 and has published many books and articles on mathematics. Several of his books concern crank mathematics (e.g., the output of people who believe they have found a method for squaring the circle) including Mathematical Cranks (MAA, 1992) and Numerology: Or, What Pythagoras Wrought (MAA, 1997). Dudley has also written more conventional math books, including Elementary Number Theory (W.H. Freeman, 1978) and Readings for Calculus (MAA, 1993).

Sarah Boslaugh ( is a Performance Review Analyst for BJC HealthCare and an Adjunct Instructor in the Washington University School of Medicine, both in St. Louis, MO. Her books include An Intermediate Guide to SPSS Programming: Using Syntax for Data Management (Sage, 2004), Secondary Data Sources for Public Health: A Practical Guide (Cambridge, 2007), and Statistics in a Nutshell (O'Reilly, forthcoming), and she served as Editor-in-Chief for The Encyclopedia of Epidemiology (Sage, 2008).


Date Received: 
Monday, January 14, 2008
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Underwood Dudley, editor
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Sarah Boslaugh
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Modify Date: 
Monday, February 25, 2008