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History of Mathematics


This SMSTC supplementary module introduces postgraduate mathematics students to the methods and perspectives of the history of mathematics. We will examine mathematical sources from the oldest surviving written texts (tallies on bones and clay tablets) to the near-present alongside a variety of historical works to develop a critical approach to the history of mathematical theory and practice in its social, cultural, political, and other contexts.


This module is co-taught by Michael Barany (Edinburgh) and Deborah Kent (St Andrews). You can email us at our respective university emails ( and, which are easily sleuthed.


Meeting time: 11:15-12:45 Tuesdays, starting 16 January.

Location: You will receive a Zoom link from SMSTC. If you are in Glasgow, Dundee, or Edinburgh you are encouraged to join with peers (in Edinburgh, with 0-2 of the instructors, depending on the day) in a local SMSTC video conferencing room. In-person participants should still bring a device to connect (on mute/silent) to Zoom if possible, for a better experience interacting with those at other locations.


Class meetings will be discussion-based, and students are expected to prepare by completing weekly readings. We ask you to engage with each assigned reading at a basic level and to prepare one of them in detail. Please sign up for the reading you will prepare in detail at least a week ahead of time so that you know which peers to talk with as you prepare and so that we have a balance of students focusing on each reading. The sign up page requires a login that will be shared with students in class and on the SMSTC page for this module.

A major focus of this course will be how to read like a historian. The process of preparing each week will make you a more confident and effective reader, not just of history. In our experience, students are often surprised by how rapidly and noticeably they build these skills with a little effort. We also do not want the module to be onerous, and our focus on reading efficiently and effectively will help you get the most out of the time you are able to commit to it.

Links to readings will be posted on the course outline below. Some will require you to figure out how to access them using your university's library resources, which is a good skill to practice anyway! (If you encounter difficulties, let the instructors know as soon as possible and we will connect you with copies.) Certain hard-to-source materials will be posted on the SMSTC page for this module under Resources.

Preparing a reading means, at a minimum, being prepared to contribute actively to explaining and discussing the following aspects of the text:

  • basic information: by whom was it written, where and when was it published, what kind of source is it?
  • the major subjects or topics
  • the geography and periodisation
  • the sources and evidence
  • the main arguments and how they intervene in the literature
  • any other notable points

We will discuss what these mean and extensively practice how to determine them.


There is an optional assessment for students requiring a mark for credit. Please contact the instructors about this as soon as possible if you plan to submit something.

Weekly Outline

1. Long ago division (16 Jan, MB+DK)

2. Runes and reconstruction (23 Jan, DK)

3. Counters and canons (30 Jan, MB)

4. Geometry and nature (6 Feb, DK)

5. Intermediate values (13 Feb, MB)

6. Stats and Probability (20 Feb, DK)

  • Rosaleen Love (1979) ‘Alice in Eugenics-Land’: Feminism and Eugenics in the scientific careers of Alice Lee and Ethel Elderton, Annals of Science, 36:2, 145-158,
  • Chapter 1, Karl Pearson and the Cambridge Economists in Stigler, Stephen M. Statistics on the Table: The History of Statistical Concepts and Methods. Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Chapter 8, The History of Statistics in 1933 in Stigler, Stephen M. Statistics on the Table: The History of Statistical Concepts and Methods. Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Lorraine Daston, Rational Individuals versus Laws of Society: From Probability to Statistics, Chapter 13 in The Probabilistic Revolution, v. 1. Ideas in history / edited by Lorenz Krüger, Lorraine J. Daston, and Michael Heidelberger. This is available on urn:oclc:record:1280755537

7. Bodies and minds (27 Feb, MB)

8. Foundations and roots (5 Mar, DK)

9. Worlds of mathematics (12 Mar, MB)

10. History and Mathematicians (19 Mar, DK+MB)

Everyone please try to read all three of these this week:

Additional Resources

smstc-hm/start.txt · Last modified: 2024/03/18 21:04 by mjb