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Grit City Think & Drink | Math Stories and Histories: How Historical Narratives Shape Mathematical Ideas

Mathematics has been the source of fascination and struggle for countless students across the world. In recent decades, math textbooks and educators have begun to use historical sidebars and biographies to engage students in the "why" of mathematics, rather than just the "how". This has led to a struggle between cultural stories of mathematical theorems that are told around the world. For example, most students learn that the Pythagorean theorem is due to the Greek mathematician Pythagoras (fl. 520 BCE), even though there's no evidence he knew of it. Meanwhile, independent proofs from India and China are not well known in the West, let alone the use of Pythagorean triangles in ancient Egypt and Babylonia. The way we talk about math matters--students who see only one aspect of the story of mathematics develop a sense of who can do mathematics and for what purpose. In truth, people in all times, places, and cultures have engaged with mathematics in accounting, navigation, construction, recreation, and more. Bringing that truth to today's classrooms unleashes the broader human potential to bring new discoveries and applications to light.
Erik Tou is a mathematics historian specializing in the mathematics of the 18th century. His historical interests span a wide range of subjects, from the ancient Mediterranean to the Islamic Golden Age; he is also director of the Euler Archive, and online digital resource for the works of Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler. He has also been known to study the mathematics of juggling from time to time.