Oxford Figures, Chapter 1: 800 years of mathematical traditions

The tradition of the mathematical sciences

If one had to nominate the single most influential event of Oxford's long mathematical history, it would be the founding by Sir Henry Savile of two endowed Chairs in 1619. Through the Savilian Chair of Geometry and the Savilian Chair of Astronomy a conception of the breadth of the mathematical sciences, as well as a tradition of how to teach and study and further them, was passed down from generation to generation. Although in an institutional sense the Chairs began to drift apart in the nineteenth century, under the pressure of examinations and shifting faculty alliances, research into pure mathematics and applied and cosmological mathematics has remained a notable dimension of Oxford activity up to the present day.

Throughout much of the period after the founding of the Savilian Chairs, the two roles seem to have been more or less interchangeable: a leading Oxford mathematician would generally be appointed to the next Chair to fall vacant and could tilt his interests accordingly, or indeed carry on regardless. It can be surprising now to notice the range of many of the Savilian professors, able to write as knowledgeably on music theory as on architecture, and observe an eclipse as attentively as preparing scholarly mathematical editions for the press. To some extent this breadth, shown also in the interchangeability of Chairs, reflects the breadth achieved by any well-trained professional mathematician of the time. One would find the same set of interests among leading mathematicians throughout Europe, so that is not in itself exceptional-- except that the size and continuity of the Oxford tradition has enabled the tradition of the mathematical sciences to flourish, with more or less vigour, over such a long period.

The early seventeenth century saw also the founding by Sir William Sedley of an endowed Chair in Natural Philosophy; this is, in effect, what we would now call physics, or perhaps applied mathematics. Holders of the Sedleian Chair--the first, Edward Lapworth, was appointed in 1621--contributed further to the range of mathematical sciences taught in Oxford, notably in the eighteenth century when they shared in promoting Newtonian science alongside the Savilian professors: indeed, for the latter part of that century Thomas Hornsby managed to fill both the Sedleian Chair and the Savilian Chair of Astronomy, as well as various other positions, for a period of nearly 30 years. Over the past century the Sedleian professor has been a distinguished applied mathematician, to give leadership to that side of Oxford's mathematical teaching and research activity.

Besides the Sedleian Chair, scientific principles were taught from the early eighteenth century onwards by a reader in experimental philosophy, a function discharged for over a hundred years, from 1730 to 1838, by one or other of the Savilian professors who tended to accumulate offices so long as professorial income was derived largely from student fees. It was while David Gregory was Savilian Professor of Astronomy in the 1690s that the style was developed in Oxford of teaching Newtonian science demonstratively through experiments, with lectures given in a room on the first floor of the Ashmolean Museum, now the Museum of the History of Science.

Further subjects, too, have entered the purview from the latter part of the nineteenth century. Following an abortive attempt in the midVictorian period to introduce statistics into Oxford studies, through the unlikely alliance of Florence Nightingale and Benjamin Jowett, mathematical statistics finally reached Oxford in the 1890s, in effect, in the researches of the professor of political economy, Francis Edgeworth. But only in the 1930s, with the founding of the Institute of Statistics, was the subject officially integrated within the University, and it was not until 1948 that a professor of statistics was appointed, David Champernowne. During the latter twentieth century another subject too, computer science, grew in significance and came to play an important role in Oxford's academic provision. Without claiming computer studies as a part of mathematics, the Oxford style of doing computer science has had a philosophical and logical cast which seems a continuation under another name of the long tradition of Oxford mathematical sciences.


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