The Department of Mathematics established its first History of Mathematics course in 2012. Five years later, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics Norman Biggs shares the story behind the founding of the course and the people involved in making it the success it is today.

Norman Biggs, 2016. Credit: Carl Goodwin Photography

Norman Biggs, 2016. Credit: Carl Goodwin Photography

By about 2010 the fledgling Mathematics Department at LSE had grown to the point where it could be compared with long-established departments in other UK universities. In particular, the new degree in Mathematics with Economics provided the opportunity to give our students a broad background in mathematics. I had dabbled in the History of Mathematics for many years and, when I mentioned the possibility of a course in that subject, I was encouraged by the then Head of Department, Jan van den Heuvel. One of my qualifications was that I had some experience of the famous Open University course, having served as an External Examiner for several years.

Jan Van den Heuvel with other members of staff attending the Teaching Symposium 2013 in the New Academic Building on the 29th May 2013.

Jan Van den Heuvel, 2013. Credit: © 2013 LSE/Nigel Stead

So there emerged a plan to set up a course of about twenty lectures and ten classes, covering the main events in the history of mathematics from the dawn of civilisation to the present day. In order to give the course a distinctive flavour, the applications of mathematics in economics and finance would be stressed. Also, the course would reflect the recent trend towards a broad view of mathematics in all its forms, rather than the traditional approach based on ‘famous mathematicians and their theorems’. The teaching would be based on the Open University model, using mainly ‘gobbets’ taken from historical sources. In the coursework and the examination, students would be expected to comment on content, context, and historical significance of these gobbets. There would also be an assessed coursework essay, counting for 30% of the final mark. It was hoped that the students would thereby acquire the skill of writing about technical mathematics in narrative form.

June Barrow-Green. Credit: LSE

June Barrow-Green. Credit: LSE

At an early stage I was lucky enough to involve Robin Wilson, an old friend and co-author, who also had experience of the Open University system. Like me, he was officially ‘retired’, and was able to bring much-needed expertise and enthusiasm to the project.  After some preparatory work we were able to satisfy LSE’s regulations, and the course MA318 History of Mathematics in Finance and Economics was offered for the first time in the academic year 2012-13. There were six students, and contributions from four teachers. The course materials were produced in rather crude way but, by and large, the course went well. Nevertheless, there were obvious lessons to be learned, and in order to make the course more coherent, all the lectures and the classes in 2013-14 were done by Robin and myself. Another innovation was to encourage active involvement of the students in the classes, which we did by using quizzes. These comprised short questions in which students were asked to answer simple problems using the techniques available in the relevant historical period.


Robin Wilson. Credit: James Franklingresham, Wikimedia Commons

“The course was delivered enthusiastically and engagingly, and was a highlight of my final year! My time at LSE was marked by great people and experiences throughout. In particular, it was of course dominated by a series of fascinating (and deeply challenging!) maths courses. What I realised during the MA318 course, and have come to appreciate even more deeply in retrospect, is what really grabs me about the History of Maths: that it ties together the different areas of the subject into a cohesive big picture. Not only that, but it provides a spectacularly detailed narrative for that how that ‘big picture’ emerged.” – Michael Seal

The number of students taking the course increased steadily. We were attracting students from several degree programmes, including Actuarial Science,  Business Mathematics and Statistics,  and the General Course, as well as Mathematics with Economics. This meant that we needed some additional help with the teaching, and we were lucky enough to recruit June Barrow-Green, one of the UK’s leading historians of mathematics. It was also time to make the course materials more attractive, by collecting them in five illustrated booklets which were distributed to registered students in advance.

Michael Seal. Credit: Michael Seal

Michael Seal. Credit: Michael Seal

We were aware that the British Society for the History of Mathematics offered annual prizes for essays written by undergraduates at a UK university, and in 2015-16 we encouraged students to submit their MA318 essays for this prize. It was gratifying that one prize was awarded to Michael Seal, one of our Mathematics with Economics students, for his essay entitled Was there a revolution in analysis in the nineteenth century.

“I am now teaching Maths full-time at a secondary school in South London, and my lessons are packed with historical context: stories of where the Maths came from, and how it ties in with everything the period – from the body of academic knowledge at the time, to the social and political situation! I am grateful to Professors Biggs, Wilson, and Barrow-Green for an inspiring and informative experience, that has enriched my own teaching, and has opened me to an entirely new dimension of our subject!” – Michael Seal

Were you a History of Mathematics student at LSE? Share your memories in the comments below.

Contributed by Norman Biggs (Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at LSE)

Read more

Read the original post at the Maths at LSE blog

Listen to Norman Biggs’ oral history of his time at LSE

Listen to June Barrow-Green’s LSE public lecture on Mathematicians and the First World War

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