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Technology & Science

The International History of Mathematics

We will hold an exhibition in the Bush House Arcade exhibition space celebrating the astonishing international history of mathematics. Exhibits will then be housed permanently on the walls of the mathematics department, thereby embedding our commitment to diversity into the fabric of our department. Exhibits will be designed so they can be taken to schools in widening-participation work.

This history of mathematics is inspiring. Mathematics as an endeavour spans continents: and progress has required respecting the contributions made across the globe. For example, the concept of zero was developed independently in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and Central America. Building on this, the base-10 system we use today originated in India, was extended to include fractions in Persia, and was finally popularised in Europe by Fibonacci.

This history is poorly understood by students and even many professional mathematicians. The remarkable formula for Pi, which states:

Mathematical equation for Pi (Leibniz's formula)

is still often called Leibniz’s formula, but was discovered by Mādhava of Sangamagrāma in Kerala, then rediscovered by Gregory and rediscovered again by Leibniz.

We conducted a King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship this summer examining the treatment of race in school mathematics. We performed textual analysis of GCSE textbooks and interviewed school maths teachers. We learned that while efforts have been made to diversify the cast of characters used in mathematics problems, the diverse history of mathematics is barely mentioned. Textbooks teach algebra without noting that its name comes from the Arabic d al-Jabr (الجبر). Schools are therefore missing an opportunity to inspire their minority students, and may be fuelling a false narrative that mathematics was created by Europeans. Our research demonstrates a need to develop resources promoting teaching mathematical history in schools. This is supported by the comments of the teachers we interviewed. 

The exhibition will be co-created by with King’s students and a collaboration with an artist. It will be targeted at year 9-11 school students. King’s undergraduates will identify key themes in the history of mathematics and will develop exhibits through a series of workshops. The students will shape the exhibition, and provide the inspiration needed for the collaborating artist. Using their mathematical skills students will develop augmented reality components to the exhibits using tools such as Geogebra and Python. For our undergraduates, this will provide an opportunity to work on a highly interdisciplinary project and to explore themes of race which do not surface in the traditional mathematics curriculum. Students will express themselves creatively and will help shape the future environment of the mathematics department.

In parallel we will hold a workshop for educators on Race and Mathematics. Speakers will discuss themes including decolonization, but will also look at wider race-equality work within mathematics such as the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). The workshop will provide a springboard for ongoing collaborations between mathematicians at King’s and AIMS.

We will measure success of the project from the attendance of schools at the exhibition and their feedback, together with feedback from our own students on the benefits of participating in co-creation of an exhibition.

Project status: Ongoing

Principal Investigator