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Student Reports: A Rewarding Undertaking - More Essay Assignments

Frank J. Swetz

         Essay Assignment:    Humanizing Mathematics


An effective viewpoint for overviewing mathematics and its history is to concentrate on mathematics as a human endeavor. Textbooks written for “liberal arts” (LA) mathematics general education courses often reflect this perspective. For example, Harold Jacob’s LA text is entitled Mathematics, A Human Endeavor and Sherman Stein’s is called Mathematics, The Man-Made (sic) Universe. Another good source for delving into the human side of mathematics is the book Essays in Humanistic Mathematics, edited by Alvin M. White and published by The Mathematical Association of America, Washington, D.C., 1993.  Copies of this collection of essays are available from your instructor on a first-come-first-served basis. Two very dependable sources for information on mathematical scientists are The Dictionary of Scientific Biography (DSB) and Women of Mathematics (WoM), which are in the Reference Sections of the Library. And then there is E. T. Bell's classic, (in)famous Men of Mathematics which consists of 28 melodramatic but enticing biographical essays (sometimes of more than one person at a time) of important personages in the history of mathematics who died before 1920. The principal purpose of this essay on an individual mathematical scientist and her/his work is to help humanize the admittedly abstract field of mathematics and to develop richer humanistic contexts in which you can place your mathematical studies.


In this essay, you will investigate the biography and mathematical/scientific career of an important mathematical scientist whose story we will not hear about as part of some book report in the last days of the course. For the record, during the book report classroom presentations on 12/3 and 12/5, the lives and work of Georg Cantor, Leonhard Euler, Galileo Galilei, Kurt Gödel, David Hilbert, Sir Isaac Newton, Emmy Noether, George Polya, and John von Neumann will be discussed. The list below contains 18 additional mathematical scientists of some historical import, one of whom you will be assigned on 9/19 as the “subject” for your essay by the Churchill Down's pill-pull method for assigning post positions for the Derby. You will report on your mathematician on Mathematicians” Day, 10/8.


The Mathematical Scientists are:

Archimedes (287-212 BCE) [IIA]

Girolamo Cardan (1501-1576) [IIB]

Augustin Louis Cauchy (1789-1857) [IVA]

Sir Arthur Cayley (1821-1895) [IVA]

René Descartes (1596-1650) [III]

Paul Erdős (1913-1996)

Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665) [III]

Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) [IVA]

Sophie Germain (1776-1831) [IVA]

Godfrey Harold Hardy (1877-1947) [IVA]

Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992) [IVB]

Sophia Kovalevskaia [Sonya Kovalesky] (1850-1891)

Joseph Louis Lagrange (1736-1813) [III/IVA]

Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) [III]

Nicolai Lobachevsky (1793-1856) [IVA]

Julia Robinson (1919-1985) [IVA]

Claude Shannon (1916-2001) [IVB] (NY Times obituary available - he died recently)

Alan Turing (1912-1945) [Precursor of Period IVB]


Frank J. Swetz, "Student Reports: A Rewarding Undertaking - More Essay Assignments," Convergence (July 2007)