Geoff Johnson: Online course on history of math an idea whose time has come

The good news for scientists, business people, computer developers, economists, teachers and people in data-related professions of every kind is that math has become cool again.

In fact, math has become cool even for non-mathematicians.

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It features in movies such as The Imitation Game, which describes how sophisticated math led to the cracking of the German Enigma code, under the guidance of mathematician Alan Turing, which was a factor in the shortening of the Second World War. Turing is now featured on an English banknote.

Hidden Figures, the movie about NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson and her female colleagues at NASA, was a box-office success. Bestselling books like The Codebreaker by Jason Fagone celebrate mathematics and brilliant mathematicians who changed the world.

All of which makes it a perfect time for Cowichan Valley math teacher Wayne Loutet to have developed an innovative online course for Grades 11 and 12 called History of Mathematics, which covers about 12,000 years of the evolution of world mathematics.

As Loutet, who taught math for over 50 years, explained to me: “It’s important for students to understand how math has shaped our world back as far as 2950 BC and beyond, when the construction of Stonehenge apparently derived its design from complex geometrical knowledge and features no less than six concentric polygons.”

Loutet’s course also touches on the sophisticated math used by the Egyptians when the Pyramids of Khafre were built almost 4,600 years ago. It took 20 to 25 years to build each pyramid, each of which required about two million blocks of limestone and/or granite, all the while using sophisticated math to accurately calculate the internal volume required for each pyramid.

That’s history, but why now? Normally, we study political, even religious, history to understand how we arrived at current beliefs and understandings.

The same applies to the history of mathematics. Loutet’s courses are primarily an investigation of the origin of discoveries through mathematics and, to a lesser extent, an exploration of the applications of mathematical methods and notations of the past for purposes of taxation, commerce, trade, even the patterns of nature, as in the fascinating Fibonacci number sequence.

The Fibonacci sequence and what mathematicians refer to as “the Golden Ratio” recognize the presence of recurrent mathematical structures and forms in flowers or seeds in plants, with the main aim to highlight the existence of regular geometric patterns in nature.

History of Mathematics touches upon the way that, for more than 12,000 years, math has contributed to the evolution of astronomy and ways to accurately record the passing of time and the development of calendars.

Put simply, in an age when there’s so much more data around, knowing that the mathematics of today did not begin with page one of a modern textbook is important for students to understand how the mathematics of large-scale data analysis enables us to envision the demands of the future.

According to IBM, we now create more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day.

Nearly half of sales and marketing functions describe themselves as having been “transformed” by analytics and Big Data.

A recent survey revealed that 84% of enterprises have launched advanced analytics and Big Data initiatives to improve decision-making.

And then there’s the relatively new field of bioinformatics, which develops methods and software tools for understanding biological data, in particular when the data sets are large and complex, like those derived from tracking COVID-19 outbreaks and the variants of COVID, which medical scientists need to be able to identify quickly.

Today, math is an important part of what we take for granted in our day-to-day life: It secures the Internet, keeps email private, maintains the integrity of cash machine transactions, and scrambles TV signals on unpaid-for channels.

Just as important, as Loutet suggests, is that the mathematics of computer programming makes online teaching and learning actually inviting, even entertaining, with its animated presentations and learner control over the pace of moving through a course individually at home or as a group in a classroom.

Loutet’s online course on the history of mathematics seems like an idea whose time has come. It demonstrates that beyond geometry, algebra, calculus and even the critical field of bioinformatics, “pure mathematics,” as Einstein pointed out, “is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas” and has been for thousands of years.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools. He admits that his appreciation of mathematics came late in the day, long after the end of his formal education.

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