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Motivated by this question I would like to know whether there is an exact definition of modern mathematics. In which point in time (century, decade) does one think, when speaking about modern mathematics. Does it refer to the Abstract Algebra?

Edit: I got -1. If this is not a correct question, please state why. And it can be closed if the question is not proper.

This is a genuine doubt and ignorance of mine!

Edit 2: In my humble opinion instead of closing, should be better to tag it as a community wiki. Anyway I do not have any no objections against in closing it.

Edit 3: Now is a community wiki.

Edit 4. I have learned from the answers and comments, including the explanation for closing!

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closed as not a real question by Grigory M, muad, Mariano Suárez-Alvarez, Aryabhata, Qiaochu Yuan Aug 27 '10 at 15:41

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Tongue-in-cheek question: how modern is "modern"? –  J. M. Aug 27 '10 at 7:44
I think the answer is No. It's not an exact concept with a clear meaning. (E.g. it's sometimes used to distinguish current-day practices and ideas from those of an earlier time, etc.) –  ShreevatsaR Aug 27 '10 at 8:44
Should be community wiki in my opinion. –  Asaf Karagila Aug 27 '10 at 8:52
Maybe you're refering to "new math"? In that case, the explanation in Wikipedia is fair and concise: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_math . –  a.r. Aug 27 '10 at 10:40
It's 1) not a mathemtical question 2) question without good answer (besides "no, it isn't"). Voting to close. –  Grigory M Aug 27 '10 at 11:32

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Further to the other answers, which are indeed correct: no technical definition exists- barks $\iff$ dog, frankly- but 'modern' is a well defined concept outside of mathematics; and to a certain extent it is one to which the barkings of modern mathematics agree.

It was once the case that mathematicians believed proofs to uncover the neccessarily true- there must be numbers working thus, and those numbers must naturally have no zero divisors- there must be a geometry built thus, and this geometry must have angles in a triangle summing to $180^o$. With the exception of the work of Euclid (whose axioms were largely seen by others as immutable anyway), the theorems of mathematics were seen as universal truths, fouded in pure logic- facts about platonic ideals.

Except none of this was true.

Perhaps the first chink in the armour of this classical mathematics came with the work of Bolyai and Gauss, constructing consistent geometries where triangles behaved unusually (turning, as we all know, into modern Hyperbolic geometry), that seeped from a change in the hitherto 'immutable' axioms.

And from here the trickle began, which rushed and swelled with time, and burst the banks of mathematics as was: axioms became plastic, changeable at will, and with them the mathematics that followed from them. New concepts were created, and concepts of concepts, enriching and enlarging the mathematical landscape in ways that generations before could not have imagined.

Parallell to this explosion was the search for foundations for these axioms- the dying embers of platonism in the work of Frege, Russell and Whitehead; Hilbert's program, seeming at first promising, were spectacularly micturated on by Godel's incompleteness theorems. And it soon became (quite) clear, that any (provably) 'ultimate' description of mathematics was doomed to failure.

Modernism outside of mathematics is characterised by a certain relativism- an understanding that different perspectives can lead to different (equally valid) conclusions. In modern mathematics one has the reals and the p-adics, euclidean and non-euclidian geometries, topologies and metric spaces, groups, rings, algebras: sets and mereology- and we cannot claim one to be more valid than the others.

In modern mathematics, our truths are absolute but crucially contingent, the children of axioms in a pluralistic universe of possible postulates.

Of course some would say that 'modern' just means 'with categories', but that's not quite as neat- perhaps we can fit categories to 'post-modern' somehow....

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+1 for your lecture, at least for me. –  Américo Tavares Aug 27 '10 at 14:41
Yes, but this sense of "modern" is no longer modern! It has been around since the time of Hilbert and Godel. Perhaps we should speak instead of "postmodern mathematics." –  Qiaochu Yuan Aug 27 '10 at 15:43
@Qiaochu with maybe the categorical movement ushering in the post? –  BBischof Aug 27 '10 at 18:49
@Qiaochu Being "modern" is so old hat. Nowadays everyone wants to be "hip" or "groovy" or "with it" or "fab"... –  walkytalky Aug 27 '10 at 23:06
walkytalky: That you use "groovy" seems to betray your age. ;) Anyway, I'm not holding my breath waiting for the first use of "post-postmodern". –  J. M. Aug 27 '10 at 23:14

The opposite of "modern" is "classical," and a common use of the word classical is "whatever was known when I was in college." That's a little tongue-in-cheek, but it really is how many people use the term. See more discussion here.

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So eventually everything we know now will become classical, then? ;) –  J. M. Aug 27 '10 at 10:58
@JMangaldan: Then I can't wait for quantum field theories being called classical physics... –  Tobias Kienzler Aug 27 '10 at 11:20
Tobias: Ditto. :) –  J. M. Aug 27 '10 at 11:38
@Tobias Kienzler: if only life were that simple. I think it is more likely to become "classical quantum field theory" (in the spirit of "complex simple Lie algebra"). –  Qiaochu Yuan Aug 27 '10 at 15:44
Yes, everything will become classical. I repeatedly hear people use "classical" to describe something that was unknown five years ago. –  John D. Cook Aug 27 '10 at 16:26

Following in a tradition of similar purported definitions, one may say that "modern mathematics is what modern mathematicians do". :-)

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