Math E-320: Fall 2015
Teaching Math with a Historical Perspective
Mathematics E-320: Fall 2015
Instructor: Oliver Knill
Office: SciCtr 432

What is Mathematics?

Here is a youtube version of the slides of my first lecture on the course MathE-320 of spring 2015 Every 2 hour lecture features a slide show like that:
This course gave an overview over some topics of mathematics. In the first lecture, an overview over all mathematics was attempted [PDF]. There are many books which give better overviews. One is "Timothy Gowers: Mathematics, A very short introduction." Of course, there are also more and more online resources. Wikipedia for example defines Mathematics as the science of quantity, structure, space, and change.
The question, "what is mathematics?" is answered in many different ways. In the lecture of fall 2015, I gave a few examples. When designing the course in 2009, I tried the definition
Mathematics is the science of structure.
The shortness of the definition makes it more general. Any list of particular things is too narrow. Galileo wrote that "The grand book, the universe, is written in the language of mathematics". And added that "without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth" Here are some additional ones: Beutelspacher (a book in German with the title "In Mathe war ich immer schlecht") defined (translate): "Mathematik is the attempt to discover logical connections". I find the "attempt" part not satisfying. It is too humble. Mathematics does discover logical connections, not only attempt it. But there is more to it than just logical connections.
Here are my top three picks from Brainyquote: Here the least favorite, even so expressed by giants in the field. It is almost certain however that all of these quotes were meant to be sarcastic, similar to other more humorous expressions given in my lecture given this fall. Here are the three:
Please send questions and comments to
Math E320| Oliver Knill | Fall 2015 | Canvas page | Extension School | Harvard University