Thursday, 21 November 2013

Skeptical of mathematics

Almost every new endeavour, in fields such as science, art, or music, has gone through a period of mistrust from more established experts. It may seem strange to us now, but even mathematics went through a similar phase.

Roger Bacon, circa 1267, complained of writers who put maths as one of the seven Black Arts, due to it’s links with astrology. Despite the release in 1542 of the first comprehensive practical arithmetic in English (“The Grounde of Artes” by Dr Robert Recorde), mathematics remained linked to prognostics.

In 1624, William Monson wrote

“It is a question whether a man shall attain to better knowledge by experience or by learning? And many times you have controversies arise between a scholar and a mariner upon that point. The scholar accounts the other no better than a brute beast, that has no learning but have experience to maintain the art he proposes. The mariner accounts the scholar but verbal, and that he is more able to speak than act.”

In 1666 John Wallis wrote

“Mathematicks at the time, with us, were scarce looked upon as Academical Studies, but rather Mechanical; as the business of Traders, Merchants, Seaman, Carpenters, Surveyors of Lands, or the like, and perhaps some Almanack Makers in London... For the Study of Mathematicks was at that time more cultivated in London than in the Universities.”

And in 1701, as the tide had already turned in favour of studying mathematics, J Arbuthnot summarised those arguments against:

“The great objection that is made against the Necessity of Mathematics in the great affairs of Navigation, the Military Arts, etc., is that we see those affairs carry'd on and managed by those who are not great mathematicians: as Seamen, Engineers, Surveyors, Gaugers, Clock-makers, Glass-grinders etc., and that Mathematicians are commonly speculative, Retir'd, Studious Men, that are not for an active Life and Business but content themselves to sit in their Studies and pore over a Scheme or Calculation.”


Arbuthnot, J., (1701) “An essay of the usefulness of mathematical learning in a letter from a gentleman”
Taylor, E.G.R., (1954) “The Mathematical Practitioners of Tudor and Stuart England,” Cambridge University Press
Monson, W., (1624) “Naval Tracts”


malf said...

Hi Ersby. Not sure if you liten to BBC radio4's Infinite Monkey Cage, but this weeks episode, on mathematics, is entertaining.

Ersby said...

I've listened to it on occasion. I'll give this week's episode a go. Thanks.