Oxford Figures, Chapter 1: 800 years of mathematical traditions

The popularizing tradition

Although not formally written into the Savilian or other statutes, several Oxford mathematicians down the centuries have interpreted their role as having a dimension of explaining the purpose and conclusions of their subject to a wider public. Even before the time of Sir Henry Savile, an exposition of the advantages and purpose of studying arithmetic was incorporated in Robert Record's influential textbook The ground of artes, in which he described how arithmetic was needed for the study of music, medicine, law, grammar, philosophy, divinity, and for military uses, as well as the more obvious cases of astronomy and geometry.

An early example of professorial outreach may be seen in the work of Edmond Halley, who explained in 1715 the implications of a forthcoming solar eclipse in a widely distributed handbill, to reassure people who might otherwise `be apt to look upon it as Ominous, and to interpret it as portending evill to our Sovereign Lord, King George and his Government'. He also used the event to organize careful observations of the precise timings of the eclipse in different parts of the country, perhaps the first systematic scientific observation on such a large scale, whose results are still of value for estimating the size of the Sun.

One of Halley's successors as Savilian Professor of Geometry, Baden Powell, was also concerned with the public understanding of science, and through various publications strove to draw attention to

the advantages attending the prosecution of science, of the evils sometimes supposed to be involved in it, of ... its connection with physical and still more with moral civilisation; ... the state of public opinion respecting its claims; the recognition of scientific instruction as a branch of education.

In the late twentieth century a notable example in the same vein is the popular work of the Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics, Roger Penrose: indeed, the benefaction which set up this professorship, from the will of the Cambridge mathematician and historian of mathematics Walter William Rouse Ball in 1925, spoke of the hope that the new mathematics Chair `would not neglect its historical and philosophical aspects'. In his subsequent appointment as Gresham Professor of Geometry Roger Penrose continued another tradition too, of links between Oxford mathematicians and the public lectures set up in the late sixteenth century by the City of London financier Sir Thomas Gresham (see page 80).


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