Use this tag for questions concerning history of mathematics, historical primacies of results, and evolution of terminology, symbols, and notations.

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“Stick it to the man!” Mathematical discoveries that resulted in persecution.

As the old story goes, Pythagoras and his followers were adamant that all numbers were rational, until Hippasus came along and proved that $\sqrt{2}$ (the length of the diagonal of the unit square) is ...
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Could G. H. Hardy make a product of two primes so big he couldn't find out which?

This question of course began as a slightly irreverent play on the riddle, "Can God make a stone so big He can't lift it?" Then I wondered about the answer. Is it possible to exhibit a number that is ...
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Development of the Idea of the Determinant

While I basically understand what a determinant is, I wonder how this idea was developed? What was the principal idea behind its origination? I would like to know this so that I can have a better ...
31
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1answer
460 views

Is the Galois group associated to a random polynomial solvable with probability 0?

Choose a random polynomial $P\in\mathbb{Z}[x]$ of degree $n$ and coefficients $\leq n$ and $\geq-n$. Let $r_1,\ldots,r_n$ be the roots of $P$ and consider ...
31
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Image of a math problem that was stated in Cuneiform, Arabic, Latin and Finally in modern math notation

Many years ago a lecturer of mine had a photocopy of a page from a book containing a math problem ( I think it was a simple quadradic equation ) that was stated/solved in Cuneiform, Arabic, Latin ...
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History of “Show that $44\dots 88 \dots 9$ is a perfect square”

The problem Show that the sequence, $49, 4489, 444889, \dots$, gotten by inserting the digits $48$ in the middle of the previous number (all in base $10$), consists only of perfect squares. ...
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Good math bed-time stories for children?

What are some good references/books/articles from which to derive some good bed-time math stories to pique a child's interest in math? I am fascinated by math (used to hate it as a kid) and want my ...
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Why are integrals called integrals?

What is the historical background for this term? I cannot quite see what is integral about an integral, even if we go back to the viewing it as the area under a curve. It seems a strange choice of ...
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Are We Teaching Pre-Calc Wrong?

It took some 1,250 years to move from the integral of a quadratic to that of a fourth degree polynomial. When we jump too fast to the magical algorithm, when we fail to acknowledge the effort that ...
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Where does the word “torsion” in algebra come from?

Torsion is used to refer to elements of finite order under some binary operation. It doesn't seem to bear any relation to the ordinary everyday use of the word or with its use in differential geometry ...
28
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3answers
651 views

How did we know to invent homological algebra?

Update: Qiaochu Yuan points out in the comments that the title of the question is misleading, as homological algebra did not begin with long exact sequences as I'd thought. (Original question ...
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Why are so many of the oldest unsolved problems in mathematics about number theory?

Stillwell mentions in his book, Mathematics and its History that: Most of the really old unsolved problems in mathematics, in fact, are simple questions about the natural numbers... Have ...
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Genius mathematicians who never published anything

Amongst philosophers, Socrates is an example of a genius with a great influence on human history who never wrote anything. Almost all facts which are known about his revolutionary ideas are written by ...
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Who invented $\vee$ and $\wedge$, $\forall$ and $\exists$?

I can rather easily imagine that some mathematician/logician had the idea to symbolize "it E xists" by $\exists$ - a reversed E - and after that some other (imitative) mathematician/logician had the ...
26
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2answers
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Word origin / meaning of 'kernel' in linear algebra

It may be the dumbest question ever asked on math.SE, but... Given a real matrix $\mathbf A\in\mathbb R^{m\times n}$, the column space is defined as $$C(\mathbf A) = \{\mathbf A \mathbf x : ...
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Is mathematical history written by the victors?

The question is the title of a recent piece in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, by twelve authors (of which I am one). The contention is that traditional history of mathematics is ...
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3answers
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When did Fubini's name get applied to the theorem without measures?

Fubini's theorem, from 1907, expresses integration with respect to a product measure in terms of iterated integrals. The simpler version of this theorem for multiple Riemann integrals was used long ...
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1answer
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What concept does an open set axiomatise?

In the context of metric (and in general first-countable) topologies, it's reasonably clear what a closed set is: a set $F$ is closed if and only if every convergent sequence of points in $F$ ...
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Examples of mathematicians who lost interest in Math and got interested again?

I am looking for some examples, and hopefully some short biographies on mathematicians who lost interest in Math along the way, and somehow got rejuvenated again. (Better still, who managed to do ...
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Where can I find the old papers of the Math Tripos?

Is there a repository on the Internet which has the old question papers of the tripos? I am specifically interested in the papers during the 1890-1910 era, which was the era before the reforms, ...
24
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3answers
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Why is lambda calculus named after that specific Greek letter? Why not “rho calculus”, for example?

Where does the choice of the Greek letter $\lambda$ in the name of “lambda calculus” come from? Why isn't it, for example, “rho calculus”?
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Why is “mathematical induction” called “mathematical”?

One of my whims is that I never write "mathematical induction" but just "induction". We are doing maths, so what is the point about precising? We don't say "Let $f$ be a mathematical function from the ...
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Good books on Philosophy of Mathematics

Where can I learn more about the implications, meta discussions, history and the foundations of mathematics? Is Russell's Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy a good start?
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Euler's errors?

What mathematical errors is Leonhard Euler known to have made? PS: As I wrote in a comment below: "However, I would not consider proof to be an error merely because it's not a proof by present-day ...
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Where did mathematicians learn how to do truth tables?

I'm trying to find out who invented truth-tables. Here is what I have so far. Leibniz 'invented' binary arithmetic, or at least is the first one recognized to have codified and explained a base 2 ...
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What did Gauss think about infinity?

I have someone who is begging for a conversation with me about infinity. He thinks that Cantor got it wrong, and suggested to me that Gauss did not really believe in infinity, and would not have ...
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Importance of rigor

I always have a hard time explaining the importance of rigor to my friends who are not mathematically minded. A lot of past mathematicians develop the foundations of today's mathematics without going ...
23
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Origin of the dot and cross product?

Most questions usually just relate to what these can be used for, that's fairly obvious to me since I've been programming 3D games/simulations for a while, but I've never really understood the inner ...
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What did Newton and Leibniz actually discover?

Most popular sources credit Newton and Leibniz with the creation and the discovery of calculus. However there are many things that are normally regarded as a part of calculus (such as the notion of a ...
23
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1answer
506 views

How much math education was typical in the 18th & 19th century?

Was it unusual for people in those days to learn Calculus? Could a grad student take a course in differential equations or multi-variable Calculus, or did they have to learn from journals? I am always ...
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Did Euclid prove that $\pi$ is constant?

Pi is defined the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, but of course different circles have different circumferences and diameters, so in order for it to be well-defined we need to ...
22
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3answers
769 views

Who named “Quotient groups”?

Who decided to call quotient groups quotient groups, and why did they choose that name? A lot of identities such as $$\frac{G/A}{B/A}\cong \frac{G}{B}$$ suggest that whoever invented the notation ...
22
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Examples of Mathematics in Court

In court trials, natural sciences such as physics and biology routinely make an appearance, e.g. when estimating the speed of a vehicle based on impact damage or trying to deduce from the condition of ...
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Math symbol in German thesis from 1963

I have the following math symbol in a German thesis written in 1963. Is it anything more than just a function name? It is used in the following context and then goes on to state that "If the ...
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Does there exist a copy of Euclid's Elements with modern notation and no figures?

I am working through Euclid's Elements for fun, but I find the propositions difficult to understand without referencing the provided figures. Unfortunately, the figures usually give away the proofs, ...
22
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2answers
940 views

Why is the topological pressure called pressure?

Let us consider a compact topological space $X$, and a continuous function $f$ acting on $X$. One of the most important quantities related to such a topological dynamical system is the entropy. For ...
22
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1answer
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Hilbert's original proof of basis theorem

Does anyone know Hilbert's original proof of his basis theorem--the non-constructive version that caused all the controversy? I know this was circa 1890, and he would have proved it for ...
21
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3answers
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Who realized $\int \frac 1x dx =\ln(x)+c$?

Who discovered the non-obvious $\int \frac 1x dx=\ln(x)+c$ ? Were power series involved? The series look similar on opposite sides of 1: $$ \frac 1x =\sum_{n=0}^\infty (-1+x)^n \text{ for } ...
21
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Who came up with the $\varepsilon$-$\delta$ definitions and the axioms in Real Analysis?

I've seen a lot of definitions of things like boundary points, accumulation points, continuity, etc, and axioms of the real numbers. But I have a hard time accepting these as "true" definitions or ...
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562 views

Who are some blind or otherwise disabled mathematicians who have made important contributions to mathematics?

Two prominent mathematicians who were disabled in ways which would have made it difficult to work were Lev Pontryagin and Solomon Lefschetz. Pontryagin was blind as a result of a stove explosion at ...
21
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1answer
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Why did Gauss think the reciprocity law so important in number theory?

Gauss's Disquitiones Arithmeticae centers around the quadratic reciprocity law. It seems that he developed the genus theory of integral binary quadratic forms to find a natural proof of the quadratic ...
21
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2answers
924 views

Did H. Lebesgue claim “1 is prime” in 1899? Source?

John Derbyshire, in his text "Prime obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the greatest unsolved problem in mathematics" states that The last mathematician of any importance who did [consider the number ...
21
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0answers
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Definitive source about Dirichlet finally proving the Unit Theorem in the Sistine Chapel

There is a remark one can find in various books or survey articles (e.g., page 49 of Helmut Koch's "Number Theory: Algebraic Numbers and Algebraic Functions") saying Dirichlet figured out a proof of ...
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History of Modern Mathematics Available on the Internet

I have been meaning to ask this question for some time, and have been spurred to do so by Georges Elencwajg's fantastic answer to this question and the link contained therein. In my free time I ...
20
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2answers
760 views

A place to learn about math etymology?

I was recently wondering where the word `kernel' comes from in mathematics. I am sure the internet must know. I did manage to find http://www.pballew.net/etyindex.html#k which contains the origin ...
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6answers
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What is the motivation for quaternions?

I know imaginary numbers solve $x^2 +1=0$, but what is the motivation for quaternions?
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588 views

Approximation for $\pi$

I just stumbled upon $$ \pi \approx \sqrt{ \frac{9}{5} } + \frac{9}{5} = 3.141640786 $$ which is $\delta = 0.0000481330$ different from $\pi$. Although this is a rather crude approximation I ...
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Who first called the Grothendieck's schéma scheme?

Grothendieck called "schemes" schémas in French. I find it strange we call them schemes. In fact, Grothendieck called them (pre-) schemas(this is an English word) in his talk(in English) at Proceeding ...
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Was there anybody before Cantor who conjectured existence of infinities of different sizes?

Georg Cantor is formally known as the first one who discovered existence of infinities of different sizes. But the history of thinking about the concept of "infinity" in maths and philosophy goes back ...
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Curious remark of D. Ravenel

In his beautiful (but difficult) book "Complex cobordism and stable homotopy groups of spheres", concerned mostly with methods of computing homotopy groups of spheres, D. Ravenel describes a general ...