First-Year Studies: Mathematics in Context: Philosophy, Society, Culture, and Conflict


Mathematics has been an undeniably effective tool in humanity’s ongoing effort to understand the nature of the world around us, yet the mantra of high-school students is all too familiar: What is math good for anyway? When am I ever going to use this stuff? What serves to explain the puzzling incongruity between the indisputable success story of mathematics and students’ sense of the subject’s worthlessness? Part of the explanation resides in the observation that all too many mathematics courses are taught in a manner that entirely removes the subject matter from its proper historical, social, and cultural context—naturally leaving students with the distinct impression that mathematics is a dead subject, one utterly devoid of meaningfulness and beauty. In reality, mathematics is one of the oldest intellectual pursuits, its history a fascinating story filled with great drama, extraordinary individuals, and astounding achievements. This seminar focuses on the role played by mathematics in the emergence of civilization and follows their joint evolution over nearly 5,000 years to the 21st century. We will explore some of the great achievements of mathematics and examine the full story behind those glorious achievements. The ever-evolving role of mathematics in society and the ever-intertwined threads of mathematics, philosophy, religion, and culture provide the leitmotif of the course. Specific topics to be explored include the early history of mathematics, logic and the notion of proof, the production and consumption of data, the analysis of conflict and strategy, and the concept of infinity. Readings will be drawn from a wide variety of sources (textbooks, essays, articles, plays, and fictional writings), connecting us to the thoughts and philosophies of a diverse set of scholars; a partial list includes Pythagoras, Euclid, Galileo, René Descartes, Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, Lewis Carroll, John Von Neumann, John Nash, Kurt Gödel, Bertrand Russell, Jorge Luis Borges, Kenneth Arrow, and Tom Stoppard.