MacTutor History of Mathematics

In my wanderings around the internet I came across a superb resource for anyone interested in, or needing information about, mathematicians, the history of mathematics, mathematical chronologies – even a ‘famous curves’ index. This is the MacTutor History of Mathematics site, created by John J. O’Connor and Edmund F. Robertson of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Under ‘Mathematicians of the Day’ there’s an index of those who were born or died on every day of the year. I’m amazed that there’s a considerable list of these for every day of the year – who knew there were so many mathematicians (although I hadn’t heard of most of them)! It’s interesting to contemplate whether individual mathematicians, with their interest in numbers, were particularly pleased/annoyed by their birth or death date. Poor Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, died on 31 December 1719 – did he yearn to see 1720 in? Click on the link and you will find his biography, where you can also find an index of books and articles, cross-references and links to other Flamsteed websites.

Three mathematicians were born on 29 February – so, in theory, they only had one birthday every four years. (The plot of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Pirates of Penzance’ revolves around a young pirate, supposedly ‘apprenticed’ until he is 21, discovering that the small print says he must stay with the pirate band ‘until his 21st birthday’, when he will actually be 84 years old – in 1940!).

I like the page giving birth and death statistics for every day of the year in the form of bar charts. The most ‘popular’ birth month is January. The graphs use the birthdates of 2163 mathematicians, so you would expect there to be \frac{{31}}{{365}} \times 2163 = 184 born in January. In fact, there were 201. Those with the tools at their disposal might like to test if this is statistically significant (it isn’t).

A map shows the birthplace of all the mathematicians listed. I was interested to see that the great 13th century mathematician Roger Bacon was born close to where I live; long before it became accepted theory, he was convinced that the Earth was round and that you could sail round it. His Opus Maius contains theories relating to mathematics, optics, alchemy and astronomy.

Some of the ‘famous curves‘ are very beautiful – all have equations which are Cartesian (usually defined implicitly), Polar or Parametric. It would be good practice if you were to try and reproduce them on your calculator. Try, for example, the Astroid, the Cardioid, the Epicycloid and Fermat’s Spiral.


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