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What Is Math: A Brief History of Mathematics

Updated on October 4, 2015
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I'm a dad a husband & a Christian first. The rest is just life's add ons - an educator, administrator, learning & development professional

Differential line elements in Cartesian and polar coordinates
Differential line elements in Cartesian and polar coordinates | Source

Mathematics is probably one of the most important skills a student will learn. However, many will argue on practical significance of calculus in everyday life. Of course it is there but chances are you don’t compute the trajectories before you toss crumpled paper into the wastebasket. But if you do, perhaps you have a good reason – or you need some help. What is mathematics for you? Regardless of how you see it, knowledge about math is essential.

But have you ever thought of who started your grueling experience in your trigonometry class? No, don’t blame your teacher or your parents! The history of mathematics offer surprising information.

Swaziland, home of the oldest mathematical artifact

Ishongo Bone

The Ishongo Bone was discovered by Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt in 1960. Learn more about the Ishongo Bone here.

Predating the Greeks

First of all what is mathematics? Practically math is numbers, forms and relationships among these. Surely there’s a better definition. Names such as Pythagoras, Euclid, Thales used to send tingling feelings all over my body. They are without question synonymous with the study of math. However, for many, they are just hard-to-pronounce names discussed in class. Moreover, the roots of math go beyond these men! In fact, the concept of counting dates farther back. It’s so far back that it requires a considerable amount of digging to unearth the artifacts related to math.

A good example is the Lebombo bone found in Swaziland. Scientists estimate that this artifact is approximately 35,000 years old. The artifact had 29 notches etched on a baboon bone. The bone is believed to be a calendar stick much like what Bushmen from Namibia use today. So for the record, this is the oldest mathematical object found. If you think Plato is old, this is older!

Another artifact worthy of mention is the Ishango bone found along the borders of Uganda and Zaire close to the Nile River. This artifact is said to be 20,000 years old. What’s curious about the bone is that it included a quartz stone used to make marking on the bone. So clearly it was a tool that the early man used. When the artifact was discovered in the 1960s it had groups of notches. Some speculate that the bone is the earliest list of prime numbers. Others think that it is a lunar calendar of some sort.

With these basic mathematical tools, early humans were able to go about their daily lives. If you ask what is math for them, it is simply a part of their daily lives.

Now let’s fast forward several thousands of years to the time of the Sumerians. They are believed to have developed a system of measurement around 3,000 to 2,500 years BC. Moreover, the Sumerians wrote multiplication tables on clay tablets. Now that’s your ancient flashcards! The Sumerians were known to have documented their math religiously. They had tablets covering math topic like fractions, algebra, quadratic equations, and solutions to linear and quadratic equation to name a few. Suffice to say, the Sumerians regarded their study of math with pride.

Plimpton 322:  Shows the Pythagorean triples
Plimpton 322: Shows the Pythagorean triples | Source

How to read the artifact

At first glance, the tablet may seem to be gibberish. But you can easily learn how to read what on the artifact. Here's a quick guide.

Rhind Mathematical Papyrus
Rhind Mathematical Papyrus | Source

Ancient Mathematical Texts

Man became really serious about mathematics when they started writing about it. The Plimpton 322 is a significant ancient mathematical artifact. It is considered as the oldest mathematical text dating back to 1,900 BC. The tablet shows Pythagorean triples (of course it may have been called something else that time).

The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus is a mathematical text found in Egypt in 1858. This ancient artifact is divided into several books. One book includes arithmetic and algebraic problems. On the other hand, the second book includes geometry problems. The last book contains multiplication of fractions. How it was used can only be speculated. But scholars think that it’s used to teach the principles of mathematics.

By documenting the study of math, ancient civilizations passed on their knowledge to the next generation. That includes all those students currently struggling in their math classes today. Yes, this also includes their offspring and their whole lineage.

Academy of Athens
Academy of Athens | Source

What remains of the Platonic Acedemy

Archaeological Site in Akadimia Platonos subdivision of Athens, Greece
Archaeological Site in Akadimia Platonos subdivision of Athens, Greece | Source
Another view of the site
Another view of the site | Source
Another view of the site
Another view of the site | Source

Greek Math

The history of mathematics is not complete without Greeks. Greek math refers to the mathematical texts written in the Greek language. This started around 600 BC during the time of Thales of Miletus and ended in 529 AD with the closing of the Academy of Athens.

The Greeks revolutionized the study of mathematics by introducing the deductive method in their study of math. The best example here is the Pythagorean Theorem. The proof of the theorem was the first to use deductive method and logical reasoning.

Although many students are more familiar with Pythagoras, there is another significant figure in Greek math. Thales of Miletus is regarded as the first true mathematician. He is the first person to use deductive reasoning in mathematics. Moreover, he was able to derive the 4 corollaries in his theorem. Thus, he is the first person attributed with a mathematical discovery. Furthermore, he applied his knowledge in computing heights of structures, distances of ships from the shore and a host of other applications.

On the other hand, Plato became an icon in the world of mathematics. Through his Platonic Academy he helped spread mathematical knowledge. Since his academy was the center of math during the 4thcentury BC, great mathematical thinkers emerged from his school. Names like Eudoxus, and Aristotle hailed from this institution.

The extent of Greek contribution to math is wide and deep. Concepts like mathematical rigor, axiomatic method, number theory, algebra, solid geometry, conic sections, spherical geometry, optics and a host of others came to being because of the Greeks. If you think studying these concepts is hard, just imagine the effort to start from nothing. Greek mathematicians set the standards of how math should be studied.

The Medieval Math

During the medieval times, the exploration of math took on a different turn. Math was used on a biblical plane. At this time, scholars believed that math was the solution to unlocking nature and the divinity of God. You can say that math was used to justify and find the proof of religion. At this time, mathematicians looked to the heavens.

Scholars travelled around the world to discover new concepts and incorporate it in what they already know. One significant contribution during this time was the introduction of the Hindu-Arabic System.

During the 14th century, scholars explored concepts like speed, acceleration, arithmetic and geometric progression, and others. Application of previous concepts and creation of new ones paved the way to new mathematical studies.

Merging Math and Physics

Picture in Galileo's ''Discorsi'' (1638), p. 173.  His work deals with the mathematical investigation of motion.
Picture in Galileo's ''Discorsi'' (1638), p. 173. His work deals with the mathematical investigation of motion. | Source

Mathematical Boom

It was during the 17thcentury that math shined brightly. In the hands of people like Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Descarte and Newton, math became a pivotal component of discovery. Math was now used as an indispensable tool in science.

The scientific revolution of the 17th century paved the way to the discovery of the laws of physics, development of calculus, probability theories, graph theory, celestial mechanics, statistics and standardizing mathematics among others.

The 17th century mathematics brought about an explosion of ideas, application of concepts, and creation of new areas of studies. It is definitely difficult to contemplate what is math today without the scientific revolution.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein | Source

Einstein's Mass-Energy Equation

Today’s Math

Learning about mathematics usually entails understanding the history of mathematics. Of course focus is on the concepts and not really on social and historical background. But we all get the taste of how the simple morphed in to more complex ideas. As students and teachers discuss the development of math from simple counting to higher, more complex and abstract math, they get to relive the history of mathematics right in their classrooms.

Likewise, how to study math has evolved from mere gatherings to a formal seat in the classroom. We are subjected to more complex mathematics now. However, we are given numerous tools just to comprehend the basics. With the aid of computers, we can now decipher the secrets hidden in equations. But with every discovery, new questions and mysteries confront us.

From the simple bone tools 35,000 years ago, students now have sophisticated tools to learn math. This makes learning non-Eucledian geometry, calculus, differential equations, hyperbolic geometry, elliptic geometry, topological spaces and other complex mathematics easier (OK this statement is debatable). In many college admission today, knowledge of math is a necessity. Moreover, these are not just your basic garden-variety mathematics, but statistical math and other brain crunching math concepts.

It’s humbling to know that we are no longer merely counting stars, but measuring them from great distances. We can now predict patterns in the universe that was once considered mysterious. Without question, math took on a quantum leap in man's recent history.

Theory of Relativity Made Easy

More than just mere theories, mathematics of the old have helped the modern man make sense of the universe. It is true that there is much to learn, and that is what the new generation endeavors to find.

It is in the history of mathematics that we can see that there is much to learn around us. What is mathematics for you? Is it merely a subject you have to pass? If you consider the history of mathematics, you will discover that it took approximately 35,000 years to get that abhorred subject into your class schedule. You have an assortment of tools to help you with math. On th other hand, the ancient man only had a bone to guide them.

Do you like math?

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    • primpo profile image

      Primpo 5 years ago from Brooklyn, New York

      Ok first of all , are you a teacher? and is this a math lesson or history lesson or chemistry? lol I'm in school full time and this semester I have Algebra, Chemistry and Anatomy and Physiology and World Literature.. you hit a home run with this hub.. I do like math when Im not so stressed and we have some really good instructors and tutors at the school I attend. they make me love it if I wasn't so damned tired.. lol The chemistry math is simpler because of all the cancelling and punching in formulas , if I could just memorize the formulas.. lol.. do you like math? I like my brain to be challenged.. so yeah I like it..

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Hey there Primpo, It's been a while. Everynow and then I teach high school students advance math in preparation for interschool competition. Math is not my first love and i must admit, it is an acquired taste. Back in college we used the book my Mortimer for Chemistry. It presented the concepts in a simple manner.

      Glad to connect with you again. Btw, how are you doing? Have you recovered from your training injury?

    • primpo profile image

      Primpo 5 years ago from Brooklyn, New York

      someone else just told me about that book today. I think that's it.. I'm going to use it for World Literature. I have to keep a running journal on the stories we are reading , so far, Epic of Gilgamesh, "Genesis 1 to 3 and then 6 to 9, Rama and Sita, Beowulf, we just got finished with Antigone.. that was a weird one.. but I am trying to understand the stories better and how they relate to us now in this modern day, and what lessons we could hold from them.

      shoulder is feeling much better, I am working with a trainer in the gym who is really concentrating on core building and strengthening. I can't do contact training until july, in the mean while I have a goal to lose 50 pounds before I get back on the matt. I am also starting yoga, which is something Keiko sensei is doing for warm ups, because a lot of the movements and breathing is what we do in the dojo, the kamais are the same. It is interesting. there are a lot of new and exciting things on the horizon, right there I just have to reach out and catch them. I got time before I get on the mat, meanwhile I can now do San Shin No Kata and do my 200 sword cuts and practice without partner and I still go to every class to watch. We break halfway through class and have a real japanese tea break.. its awesome. I make the tea.. my job.. I claimed it.. anyway its late. I have to get up early for school so I'm turning in. it was good talking to you.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      I'ts nice to know you're doing better. My favorite in yogo is savasana - corpse pose.

      Wow 50 lbs. I'm having diffiulty just letting go 5! LOL.

      I have not participated in any tea rituals i bet it's fantastic. Also, be mindful of your posture and the way you hold the ken when practicing sword cuts. Even how tight you hold makes a big difference. Good luck.

    • primpo profile image

      Primpo 5 years ago from Brooklyn, New York

      how tight should I hold it? I hold it so it won't fall out of my grip.. haven't tried yoga yet, sunday will be my first class.. can't wait though

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Hello primpo, Got sick so I was not able to respond promptly. Anyway, I'm doing better now. How tight should you hold the ken? that's a tricky one. As a rule of thumb, I use my last three fingers (pinky, ring finger and pinter) as the anchor of the grip. My thimb and pointer simply supports it. 70% of my grip is done by the three fingers and 30% is done by the thumb and pointer.This way i can move the ken with ease. If I tighten my thumb and pointer finger grip it will limit my range of motion. so relax these two fingers. their there for support.

      Now try doing jodan, chudan, gedan, hasso, waki gamea. Notice the flexing of your muscles and the range of motions of the ken. holding it too tightly will limit the range while relaxing it will give you more range. You need to balance both when you move the ken.

    • primpo profile image

      Primpo 5 years ago from Brooklyn, New York

      ok , I never thought about the reason why it feels different sometimes but now I'll take notice.. that's great to know.. thank you.. Hope you are feeling better. I can't wait till spring break, I'm really stressed out with school and this will give me a chance to study up and gain some ground...

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      you really have a busy schedule. But what most is that you are enjoying. Keep practicing. :)

    • primpo profile image

      Primpo 5 years ago from Brooklyn, New York

      today my school is holding a special Japanese culture day which I am going to attend.. can't wait.. there will be a tea ceremony , overview of buddism, and Shodo, ceramics and Higo, Ikebana and Kimono.. I' m looking forward to it.. so much..

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

      Well, I voted that I like math but it isn't that I like DOING math because I don't that much. But I find math interesting insofar as the history and sociological aspects of it, much as primpo alluded to. A good teacher can make math absolutely fascinating and easy to do. A bad math teacher can make the subject absolutely excruciating.

      Voted up and interesting

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Hello Danette Watt. True, the teacher makes a big difference in how the student sees math. I've had both good and bad teachers before. I'm not a big fan of math, but i do find it interesting and useful. Thanks for dropping by and sharing.

    • profile image

      Arthur Dacena 5 years ago

      I love math. But the problem is the way teachers teach it at schools.

    • Anjo Bacarisas II profile image

      Anjo Bacarisas II 4 years ago from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines

      Very interesting! Thank you for the information, inspiring page.

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 4 years ago from The High Seas

      This impressed the hell out of me. I loved trig in school. I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. Even got the school curriculum changed to offer the class. I was the only student. Sadly had to leave school when I was 16 and go to work. Ah what could have been. Excellent and interesting hub. Well done.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Ahoy GettitScene,

      Never liked math but was forced to learn it as many of us had to. :) But now that i use math on a daily basis, I wish I paid more attention to my teachers. :)

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 4 years ago from The High Seas

      Isn't that the way things usually go with kids and school?

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      So true GetitScene. But in fairness I paid really close attention to my biology class. Unfortunately I'm not using it in my work.

    • crystolite profile image

      Emma 4 years ago from Houston TX

      when I was young I so much loved math that I even taught most people higher than me in class. But how it came to being, I really don’t know. Thanks for the information.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Hello crystolite,

      Doing math seems to be second nature to many but not many actually took the time to lewarn its history. I hope the information is useful to you.

    • mathsmaster profile image

      Hassan Shahbaz 3 years ago from Islamabad, Pakistan

      A nice effort dear (y) :)

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 3 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Thank you mathsmaster.

    • mathtutoronline profile image

      Jack Wilson 2 years ago from USA

      Good hub you shared here. A good history of math.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 2 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Thank you mathtutoronline, Some people just don't like math. Perhaps by showing them a short history of math can spark their interest.

    • profile image

      mr.m 2 years ago

      Thank you for this information:)

    • Raphael Dipippo profile image

      Raphael Dipippo 13 months ago


    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 13 months ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Hello Raphael Dipippo, thank you for dropping by my hub.

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