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The History of the History of Mathematics

Case Studies for the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Edited By Benjamin Wardhaugh

The writing of mathematical histories has a long history, one which has seldom received scholarly attention. Mathematical history, and mathematical biography, raise distinctive issues of method and approach to which different periods have responded in different ways. At a time of increasing interest in the history of mathematics, this book attempts to show something of the trajectory that history has taken in the past. It presents seven case studies illustrating the different ways that mathematical histories have been written since the seventeenth century, ranging from the ‘historia’ of John Wallis to the recent re-presentation of Thomas Harriot’s manuscripts online. It considers both the ways that individual reputations and biographies have been shaped differently in different circumstances, and the ways that the discipline of mathematics has itself been variously presented through the writing of its history.


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The ‘epitome of intellectual sagacity’: Biographical treatments of Newton as a mathematician 47


Rebekah Higgitt National Maritime Museum, Greenwich The ‘epitome of intellectual sagacity’: Biographical treatments of Newton as a mathematician What is there to be gleaned from a study of how Newton has been rep- resented in biographies ‘as a mathematician’? Have contemporaries and later writers not all simply agreed that, as his twentieth-century biographer Richard S. Westfall wrote, he was ‘a mathematician of the first order’?1 Yet a closer study of biographies of Newton reveals interesting subtleties in this matter that are worthy of consideration. As the meaning of the word and role ‘mathematician’ has shifted considerably over three centuries, so depictions of Newton have either changed in order to present him in conformity with current ideas, or he has been judged against dif ferent cri- teria. In addition, the individual interests and preferences of biographers have created a range of images of Newton the mathematician, which have been given more or less prominence within their overall picture. It is worth remembering that many writers and almost all readers of biographies of Newton were not themselves mathematicians or historians of mathemat- ics. This has often made judging and presenting a highly technical achieve- ment either impossible or undesirable. We are, however, able to consider changing views of mathematics and the mathematician. This chapter will suggest that looking at biographies of Newton, as both one of the most famous scientific heroes and an individual with a particularly complex legacy, provides a means of gaining insight into changing ideas about sci- 1...

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