Mathematical Cultures

Research Network

Project Team:

Principal Investigator:

Dr Brendon Larvor, University of Hertfordshire

Co-Investigators and Partners: 

London Mathematical Society

Award Information:

Mathematics has universal standards of validity.  Nevertheless, there are local styles in mathematics. These may be the legacy of a dominant individual (e.g. the Newtonianism of 18th century British mathematics).  Or, there may be social or economic reasons (such as the practical bent of early modern Dutch mathematics).  Sometimes, a local style results from deliberate policy.  For example, in the 1920s and 1930s, Polish officials identified ‘foundations of mathematics’ in the style of topology and real analysis as something that Polish mathematicians should excel in.  Local mathematical cultures can reflect the uneven geographical spread of a methodological division.  For example, in theoretical computer science, there are two main directions: ‘Algorithms and Complexity’, and ‘Logic in Computer Science’.  In many countries, the split between those areas is heavily uneven.

These local mathematical cultures are scientifically important because they can affect the direction of mathematical research.  They also matter because of the cultural importance of mathematics. Mathematics enjoys enormous intellectual prestige, and has seen a growth of popular publishing (including books by Ian Stewart, Marcus du Sautoy, James Gleick, Simon Singh, Karl Sabbagh and others).  There have been films about mathematicians (Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind), a novel (Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture) and plays (Proof, Arcadia and A Disappearing Number).  However, this same intellectual prestige encourages a disengagement from mathematics.  Ignorance of even rudimentary mathematics remains socially acceptable.  Policy initiatives to encourage the study of mathematics usually emphasise the economic utility of mathematics (see for example the 2006 Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Programme Report of the Department for Education and Skills). Appeals of this sort rarely succeed with students unless there is a specific promise of employment or higher remuneration.  Moreover, the policy response to the STEM report has largely focussed on institutional connections, and has not addressed the unhelpful perception of mathematics as remote and forbidding.

What is needed is a re-presentation of mathematics as a human activity, which means, among other things, that it is part of culture.  The tools and knowledge necessary for this have been developing in recent years.  Historians of mathematics have begun to consider mathematics in its social, political and cultural contexts.

This research network is an interdisciplinary initiative that brings together mathematicians, philosophers of mathematical practice, historians, sociologists, cognitive scientists, mathematics educationalists, popularisers and science journalists to research mathematical cultures, the value of mathematics as culture and its status in culture.

Project dates: May 2012- April 2014