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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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Reading Mittag-Lef f ler’s biography of Abel as an act of mathematical self-fashioning 115


Henrik Kragh Sørensen Centre for Science Studies, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Aarhus, Denmark Reading Mittag-Lef f ler’s biography of Abel as an act of mathematical self-fashioning Introduction In 1903, Gösta Mittag-Lef f ler (1846–1927) published a biographical essay on the Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel (1802–1829) in the Swedish magazine Ord och bild.1 Himself a creative Swedish mathematician and an entrepreneur of the discipline, Mittag-Lef f ler described and com- mented upon the life of the most illustrious Scandinavian mathematician of the nineteenth century. Mittag-Lef f ler’s essay followed the traditional compositional structure of a biography, thus detailing the events of Abel’s life from his birth in 1802 to his death a little more than 26 years later. However, Mittag-Lef f ler also supplied observations and evaluations from his privileged position as a productive mathematician, a highly regarded journal editor, and an educator keenly interested in nurturing young math- ematical talent.2 The aim of the present paper is to analyze the authorial 1 Gösta Mittag-Lef f ler, ‘Niels Henrik Abel’, Ord och bild: Illustrerad månadsskrift 12 (1903), 65–85, 129–40. Four years later, the essay was translated into French and published in Paris: Gösta Mittag-Lef f ler, Niels Henrik Abel (Paris: La revue du mois, 1907). In the following, all references and quotations are taken from the original Scandinavian-language editions of biographies, and translated by the author. 2 An extensive biography on Mittag-Lef f ler has recently been published...

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