As part of last week’s focus on books I have started reading a biographical story about a couple of very famous Polish mathematicians. It is not a book about mathematics but about people who had a passion for mathematics, about their lives, their successes and dramas. I suspect that not too many people know, including Polish members of the community, that the so called Polish School of Mathematics has been one of the three strongest centres of mathematics in the twentieth century.Names like Banach and Sierpinski are considered the giants of mathematics equal to Euclid or Descartes. While reading the book, I recalled my own learning of mathematics in school as well as my years as a teacher of science and mathematics. Throughout all these years, I have always strongly believed that studying the history of mathematics and science is an important, yet sometimes neglected, factor in the process of learning.
I would argue that learning about Fibonacci, Newton, Gauss or Pascal adds the human element to the concepts presented in class and it provides the students with a full understanding of mathematics and science as an intellectual and human activity. Sometimes in a negative but human sense with all its mistakes, unhealthy competition (Newton-Leibniz for example) and even cheating. It also makes students appreciate the fact that mathematics and science do have a history. A history that conveys to the students an important message: both mathematics and science are living subjects that are a product of an accumulated effort, over many years, of humans like us. It develops our understanding of the mathematical and scientific processes as something which is not always certain and not something which comes to us as famous Eureka to Archimedes. Mathematics and science are often portrayed as always certain and based on indisputable facts and axioms. However, the truth is often far from this and many laws of mathematics and science have been created during sleepless nights after many failed calculations and experimental disasters. And this process of creation reflects exactly the beauty of mathematics and science that I would like my students to appreciate.