Combining classics and mathematics


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Numbers are a part of every human’s life. Telling time, the date on the calendar, and dialing the phone all require human numeracy. But where did all of these concepts come from in the first place?

Classics Assistant Professor Marquis Berrey and mathematics Professor Philip Kutzko will co-teach a class next semester titled “Topics in Mathematics: Euclid and Descartes” to find out the answer.

Using these historical figures, the professors will analyze how  classics relates to mathematics.

“The goal of the class is to look at historical mathematical texts, what those authors said, and why they meant that,” he said. “The reason that you take any sort of history course is because you’re interested in your identity — where you come from and why the world around you is the way it is.”

The course will focus on two ancient mathematicians, Descartes, a French philosopher in the early 1600s and Euclid, a Greek mathematician of the third century B.C.E.

“We are going to try to figure out what transformation took place and what developed during that time that the mathematics became so different,” Kutzko said. “We are comparing the mathematics and the philosophy they used during the Alexandrian period to the mathematics and philosophy of the early modern period.”

A mutual colleague introduced Berrey and Kutzko, and after talking about their shared interest, they decided the idea would make for an interesting class.

The class is a learning experience on both ends — for the students and the professors. The questions Berrey and Kutzko will ask are unanswered even for them.

“The best way to think of this is that we are guides,” Berrey said.  “We are going to talk about issues that maybe don’t have answers, and certainly don’t have answers that everyone agrees on. It’s a class that asks students to think deeply and critically about intellectual history.”

UI senior and Latin major Lindsey McCoy agreed the class will challenge students to think in abstract ways.

“I think it’s interesting that they’re [studying] math and classics,” she said. “I think Math is a department where you don’t really have classes outside of math skills, so that’s interesting. The [two mathematicians] thought differently, so having to translate that and think the way they thought — it expands your horizons and the way you think.”

The class will be offered primarily to seniors and graduate students in areas of math, English, and classics. However, Berrey said, anyone with a curiosity for the correlation between the two concepts is welcome to register.

Kutzko said this material is important because it defines missing links in commonly taught material.

“A lot of the science kids learn in school is presented to them in a way where it’s assumed that they understand the underpinnings,” he said. “[Many] times they never really tell you why people answer the questions that they do.”

Berrey said he is anxious to see students make these discoveries and connections.

“I love the process of intellectual discovery — watching the students read, wrestle with, and come to understand content for the first time,” he said. “When the light bulb goes off, that’s one of the greatest moments of any professor’s teaching experience, so I hope that there are lots of light bulbs going in this class.”

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