A short History of Mathematics

‘There is no royal road to geometry.’

As the discovery of a 30000 year old wold-bone notched with tallies of five attests, the history of mathematics is ancient indeed.

The revelation that mathematics is not the exclusive domain of the human race – for example, it has been shown that crows can distinguish between sets of up to four elements – demonstrates that the rudiments of counting occur in other creatures. What is more, it begs the question: which came first, humans or mathematics?

Given mathematics’ long and colourful history, it’s hardly surprising that the contributions of great mathematicians go well beyond this field. Many of them were polymaths of one form or another, working in various disciplines, such as the sciences and philosophy.

A study of the history of mathematics is a study of the history of civilisation. It can even be argued that the scientific revolution of the Renaissance came about because of the mathematical advances that allowed it. When Fibonacci introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals to Europe in the thirteenth century, they freed mathematics form the constraints of Roman numerals.

Mathematics did not advance at the same speed everywhere. Its progress has ebbed and flowed. Ideas have been discovered and lost, and then found again. The flow of knowledge hasn’t been all in one direction, and modern mathematics takes ideas from many different places. However, we have much to be grateful to Arabic and Persian mathematicians for. They incorporated the best from the Greeks and Indians, before their knowledge was exported back to Europe and the cradle of the Renaissance.

In the modern world, mathematics has become ubiquitous. Of course, it has always been around us in many forms. But today it plays a far larger role in the everyday lives of normal people than ever. The degree of sophistication in a modern computer means that there’s far more invested in technological wizardry, and with that comes some remarkably sophisticated mathematics.

But you don’t have to be a computer whiz or a maths genius to appreciate the beauty of numbers. The more you become aware of mathematics, the more you see its influence in the world around you – you don’t necessarily have to understand every last equation. Even the most sophisticated strands of mathematics, for example chaos theory, can be found in such everyday images as the wisps of smoke from a cigarette or the swirl of cream in your coffee.

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