Notation and communication
There are many major mathematical discoveries but only those which can be understood by others lead to progress. However, the easy use and understanding of mathematical concepts depends on their notation. For example, work with numbers is clearly hindered by poor notation. Try multiplying two numbers together in Roman numerals. What is MLXXXIV times MMLLLXIX? Addition of course is a different matter and in this case Roman numerals come into their own, merchants who did most of their arithmetic adding figures were reluctant to give up using Roman numerals. What are other examples of notational problems. The best known is probably the notation for the calculus used by Leibniz and Newton. Leibniz’s notation lead more easily to extending the ideas of the calculus, while Newton’s notation although good to describe velocity and acceleration had much less potential when functions of two variables were considered. British mathematicians who patriotically used Newton’s notation put themselves at a disadvantage compared with the continental mathematicians who followed Leibniz. Let us think for a moment how dependent we all are on mathematical notation and convention. Ask any mathematician to solve ax = b and you will be given the answer x = b/a. I would be very surprised if you were given the answer a = b/x, but why not. We are, often without realising it, using a convention that letters near the end of the alphabet represent unknowns while those near the beginning represent known quantities. It was not always like this: Harriot used a as his unknown as did others at this time. The convention we use (letters near the end of the alphabet representing unknowns) was introduced by Descartes in 1637. Other conventions have fallen out of favour, such as that due to Viete who used vowels for unknowns and consonants for knowns. Of course ax = b contains other conventions of notation which we use without noticing them. For example the sign “=” was introduced by Recorde in 1557. Also ax is used to denote the product of a and x, the most efficient notation of all since nothing has to be written!
Brilliant discoveries?
It is quite hard to understand the brilliance of major mathematical discoveries. On the one hand they often appear as isolated flashes of brilliance although in fact they are the culmination of work by many, often less able, mathematicians over a long period. For example the controversy over whether Newton or Leibniz discovered the calculus first can easily be answered. Neither did since Newton certainly learnt the calculus from his teacher Barrow. Of course I’m not suggesting that Barrow should receive the credit for discovering the calculus, I’m mearly pointing out that the calculus comes out of a long period of progress staring with Greek mathematics. Now we are in danger of reducing major mathematical discoveries as no more than the luck of who was working on a topic at “the right time”. This too would be completely unfair (although it does go some why to explain why two or more people often discovered something independently around the same time). There is still the flash of genius in the discoveries, often coming from a deeper understanding or seeing the importance of certain ideas more clearly.
How we view history
We view the history of mathematics from our own position of understanding and sophistication. There can be no other way but nevertheless we have to try to appreciate the difference between our viewpoint and that of mathematicians centuries ago. Often the way mathematics is taught today makes it harder to understand the difficulties of the past. There is no reason why anyone should introduce negative numbers just to be solutions of equations such as x + 3 = 0. In fact there is no real reason why negative numbers should be introduced at all. Nobody owned -2 books. We can think of 2 as being some abstract property which every set of 2 objects possesses. This in itself is a deep idea. Adding 2 apples to 3 apples is one matter. Realising that there are abstract properties 2 and 3 which apply to every sets with 2 and 3 elements and that 2 + 3 = 5 is a general theorem which applies whether they are sets of apples, books or trees moves from counting into the realm of mathematics. Negative numbers do not have this type of concrete representation on which to build the abstraction. It is not surprising that their introduction came only after a long struggle. An understanding of these difficulties would benefit any teacher trying to teach primary school children. Even the integers, which we take as the most basic concept, have a sophistication which can only be properly understood by examining the historical setting.
A challenge
If you think that mathematical discovery is easy then here is a challenge to make you think. Napier, Briggs and others introduced the world to logarithms nearly 400 years ago. These were used for 350 years as the main tool in arithmetical calculations. An amazing amount of effort was saved using logarithms, how could the heavy calculations necessary in the sciences ever have taken place without logs. Then the world changed. The pocket calculator appeared. The logarithm remains an important mathematical function but its use in calculating has gone for ever. Here is the challenge. What will replace the calculator? You might say that this is an unfair question. However let me remind you that Napier invented the basic concepts of a mechanical computer at the same time as logs. The basic ideas that will lead to the replacement of the pocket calculator are almost certainly around us. We can think of faster calculators, smaller calculators, better calculators but I’m asking for something as different from the calculator as the calculator itself is from log tables. I have an answer to my own question but it would spoil the point of my challenge to say what it is. Think about it and realise how difficult it was to invent non-euclidean geometries, groups, general relativity, set theory, and everything else to do with MATH!
Einstein and his Theory
What do you think when some one says Einstein, is it Relativity, or E=MC2? What do you think E=MC2 means, well it means Energy=Mass x Speed of Light Squared. He was way ahead of his own time, he was a genius!

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